While “breaking news” stories crowd headlines on a daily basis, actual and proposed policy changes in Washington and Harrisburg that have real life consequences for struggling Americans receive little attention. For example, the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017” was touted as a boost to the economy that would benefit all people. Yet, analysts agree that this tax “reform” directs the most sizable cuts to the wealthiest and, in so doing, could add up to $1.7 trillion to the deficit. Looking to offset the huge costs of these tax cuts for the rich, the Trump Administration has targeted programs designed to meet the health care and nutritional needs of low-income Americans. States now can pursue waivers that would tie “work requirements” to eligibility for Medicaid coverage and to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
This currently is happening in Harrisburg. House Bill 2138 (HB2138) aims to “promote work and community engagement among medical assistance beneficiaries.” With some exemptions, this legislation requires Medicaid beneficiaries to work 20 hours/week or participate in job training activities to qualify for benefits. House Bill 1659 (HB1659) would similarly link work requirements to eligibility for SNAP. Both bills are under consideration in the House Health Committee and the Medicaid bill move out of committee this week with a final House vote expected on Monday, April 16.
On a first read, these bills appear to incentivize work and reward individual initiative toward greater self-sufficiency. However, the history of such “work requirements” has shown that they do not help unemployed, low-income people find and keep jobs. The Pennsylvania Health Access Network points out that without additional federal funding for supports such as transportation and child care, many vulnerable populations will find it difficult to comply and thus lose coverage. Without health coverage and nutritional support, securing and retaining a job is MORE difficult. Particularly at risk are people who can’t find steady employment, the homeless, and people struggling with addictions or health problems that limit their ability to work on a regular basis.
Some have questioned the actual legality of work requirements tied to Medicaid coverage as they seem to violate the objective of the Medicaid statute itself — to help low-income people access medical services. In addition, Teresa Miller, Pennsylvania Secretary for Human Services, has estimated that these bills would require the state to spend an estimated $600 million and add 300 staff to implement work requirement provisions. Wouldn’t these resources be put to better use in high quality job training programs as well as support systems for voluntary employment?
According to the Center for American Progress, nearly half of Americans will experience at least one year of poverty or near-poverty during their working years, and 70% will need some kind of needs-based assistance sometime during their lives. So it comes as no surprise that polling shows that large majorities of American voters oppose proposals to restrict eligibility and cut funding for government assistance programs. As glaring income inequality continues to worsen in our country, citizens must be wary of messaging that masks legislators’ true intentions. In this case, are “work requirements” actually efforts to cut back on assistance to those in need?
We must ask our state representatives to reject HB2138 and HB1659 as punitive measures that will not increase employment or cut poverty but rather make life harder for many as they face the loss of health care benefits and nutritional supports. Instead, we must insist our state lawmakers focus on job creation, high quality job training, and wage increases for workers – efforts that would truly make a difference in the lives of so many Pennsylvanians.
Tam St. Claire is President of the Bucks County Women’s Advocacy Coalition