President Trump’s Workforce Requirement Executive Order Sets Tone for Welfare Battle

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 8, 2018

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Welfare Word CloudPresident Donald Trump has issued an executive order which could lead to enhanced work requirements and other limitations for Americans on public assistance and other welfare programs.  The order is designed to reduce dependence on government assistance, which has been a focal point of Trump’s platform; however, advocates for welfare programs and poverty-stricken communities have countered that the order will do more harm than good.

Trump Directs Executive Order for Welfare Work Requirements

Early in April, President Trump signed an executive order which directed the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and some other agencies to conduct thorough review of their federal assistance programs to find opportunities for pushing recipients towards the workforce.  The Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility order seems like a first step in enhancing work requirements as it orders departmental secretaries to review welfare programs for opportunities to enforce current work requirements, and design and propose stronger work requirements in the future.

The order does not establish any new policy at this time, but instead gives the department secretaries 90 days to submit a welfare workforce requirement report to the President.  The order is sweeping and could eventually lead to new policies for families receiving food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and housing assistance programs.  The order directs agencies to follow nine “Principles of Economic Mobility” which are focused on reducing the federal government expenditures on public aid by increasing work requirements, consolidating duplicative programs, encouraging private sector involvement, and shifting specific aid packages to general block grants which give states more control over distributing limited federal resources.

Trump’s order reflects a broader conservative movement to reduce federal spending on assistance programs.  More than $700 billion in federal money was spent on welfare programs in 2017, and President Trump joined with conservatives in Congress have committed to reducing the costs of federal assistance.

Welfare Executive Order Aligns with Conservative Reforms

Although it lacks specific plans for federal assistance programs, Trump’s executive order sets the tone for a wave of reforms consistent with a conservative approach to welfare.  The core principles which are to guide federal agencies in proposing enhanced workforce requirements and more flexible state control over federal dollars generate from conservative criticisms that federal money is spent inefficiently and used to support Americans who don’t want to work.   During his campaign, then candidate Trump denounced the welfare system for allowing people to depend entirely on federal aid with no intention of working and promised that people “trapped in welfare” would have jobs and opportunity to break the cycle.

The President’s criticism of welfare is shared by a number of Congressional conservatives who have zeroed in on welfare spending as an opportunity to reduce government spending for years.  With Trump as an ideological ally who is unafraid to exercise his executive authority, Congressional conservatives are now pushing heavily for widescale welfare spending reform.  The movement is being framed as an effective way to return Americans to independence, and in support of the initiative the President supplemented his executive order with a fact sheet which points to studies conducted in Kansas and Maine that suggest food stamp work requirements led to an income increase in welfare dependent families and a steep drop in welfare enrollment.

Conservatives argue that their policies, the tone of which are reflected in the order, aspire to restoring “independence and dignity to millions of Americans;” however, critics of the conservative approach argue the plan will do more harm than good.

Pushback on President’s Welfare Executive Order Criticizes Conservative Approach

Advocates for impoverished Americans who utilize federal welfare programs have strongly pushed back on the conservative mindset towards federal assistance.  Although no one disagrees that encouraging welfare recipients to work is sound policy, advocates for poverty to prosperity groups are concerned that strict workforce requirements don’t account for a variety of factors which make working difficult, or even less financially beneficial, to millions of Americans.  Critics of the conservative approach have argued that Trump’s policies and ideology advance a dangerous myth that welfare recipients are lazy, entitled, and do not want to improve their standing.

Pointing out that many of the beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid — two programs squarely in the conservative crossfire — already have a working income, advocates for welfare recipients argue that enhancing workforce requirements will cause problems for Americans for whom the types of jobs they can get are not sufficient to buy basic necessities.  Critics have picked apart the President’s cited studies in Kansas and Maine with audits that suggest the conservative plans did not improve wages for former welfare recipients and have presented other data to suggest strict welfare policies may cause harm to working and middle-class citizens who need a little extra help to supplement income. 

With a midterm election looming this November, action on the President’s welfare strategy is likely coming soon.  The executive order represents a significant first step and sets a tone for the conservative plan, and with Republicans facing a stiff challenge later this year the fight for control over welfare policy is likely to be a focal point of the President’s 2018 agenda.

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