Paul Ryan, having decided that his services will no longer be needed by the American people come January, is taking one last bite at the apple of welfare reform by proposing onerous restrictions on who is eligible to receive SNAP benefits, the only remaining near-cash welfare benefit available to low-income Americans.
I do not have a very high opinion of work as an occupation, but I’m not here to convince you that poor Americans “should” or “shouldn’t” work. My objection to so-called “work requirements” is much simpler.
There is no such thing as a work requirement
In order to receive SNAP benefits more than 3 months out of every 36, recipients are already “required” to work 20 hours per week.
I want to give an honorary mention to Texas’s 2-page form “Report of Pregnancy,” which reads in part “THE DEPARTMENT CANNOT PAY YOU FOR COMPLETING THIS FORM. Thank you for your assistance.”
But while these forms are required, “work” is not required.
All work requirements are actually paperwork requirements
Before desktop publishing became a reality, I assume paystubs had to be manually typeset at great expense by trained professionals. But since we live in the 21st, not 19th, century, I would invite you to pull out or download your last paystub and actually look at it.
Anybody born after 1980 can produce a paystub showing any number of hours worked, at any wage, in about 20 minutes (if they can keep from being distracted by Twitter for that long).
And of course anyone claiming to earn income through self-employment doesn’t even need to do that.
Means-testing is an expensive, vicious mistake
As should be obvious at this point, the problem is not the amount of time low-income Americans spend working, it’s the amount of time low-income Americans spend navigating the welfare bureaucracy.
I truly do not care if an hour saved filling out Texas’s 32-page form is spend at work or if it is spent catching up on the latest scandal. I only want it to not be spent filling out a 32-page form.
At an American Enterprise Institute event on work requirements last year, the entire panel literally did not understand my question about the paperwork requirements they were proposing subjecting low-income Americans to.
But as I attempted to painstakingly explain to them, any so-called “work requirement” has two separate costs:
- the cost of being denied benefits to those who are unable to meet the paperwork requirements;
- and the cost of attempting to the meet the paperwork requirement whether using “genuine” documents or a little time in Excel.
It’s important to understand that the latter cost is even more serious than the former, since it’s imposed on everyone whether or not they in fact meet the work requirement.
In other words, even if you are fine with onerous paperwork requirements being imposed on people who are ineligible for benefits, you should strenuously oppose onerous paperwork requirements on people who are eligible for benefits. And since it’s impossible to know in advance which is which, the obvious solution is to end paperwork requirements for everyone.
The solution: universal benefits, progressive income taxes
Americans often pretend to be upset about the idea of universal welfare benefits, presumably because they don’t realize they’re already receiving them. A free public school is a universal welfare benefit. Streetlights, roads, and busses are all universal welfare benefits. In-state tuition at public universities is a universal welfare benefit. Police, firefighters, judges, and clerks of the court are all universal welfare benefits.
And even universal welfare benefits paid for through property taxes are paid for disproportionately by those occupying the most expensive homes, a kind of primitive progressive taxation (depending on local restrictions on property assessments).
I did not think very much of the personal exemption, and am glad it was eliminated in the 2017 tax reform law. But it did unintentionally contain an essential truth: people need money to live, everyone should receive enough money to live, and then once everyone has enough money to live, the surplus should be split up in the most efficient way possible.
Paul Ryan’s project appears to be something like the opposite: destroy the ability of people to meet their essential needs, consign them to unending poverty, and see if you can wring any productive labor out of them before they die, miserable and alone.