Earlier this month, the Trump administration quietly announced that it will allow individual states to impose work requirements on “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients — those aged 19 to 64 who are not disabled — as a condition of eligibility.
There is ample evidence from other social safety net programs that work requirements do little to help support people in jobs over the long run, and are in fact more likely to push struggling families off the rolls and into deeper poverty.
Despite this evidence, ten states now have work or community engagement proposals pending with the administration, and Kentucky was the first to be approved. Kentucky officials have already hinted that those who qualified under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) expansion will have to earn dentist and vision benefits by taking financial literacy classes or by getting a GED. Those who are not elderly or disabled will have to pay premiums and report changes to their income or employment status.
Why is there still popular support for work requirements when we know they further penalize struggling families? The answer is troubling, but simple: Americans have strongly held views about the connection of work to personhood.
Much of the power of “work first” thinking comes from its close connection to people’s sense of what it means to be a Person. Insight’s research on economic security and race reveals that most Americans equate joblessness with a lack of agency, and thus being diminished as a person, or somehow less moral.