Led by Rep. Matt Gaetz and other far-right members of the House GOP, Republican lawmakers are intensifying their push to establish new work requirements for millions of people who receive Medicaid and federal nutrition assistance, an effort that progressives slammed as a cruel attack on the poor.
The Washington Postreported Tuesday that Republicans, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have rallied around work requirements as a key demand as they use the ongoing debt ceiling standoff as leverage to pursue steep spending cuts and other policy changes.
"The debate in some ways resembles the Republican-led campaign against so-called welfare queens in the 1990s, when a politically resurgent GOP—then under the leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich—secured a dramatic restructuring of the government's social safety net," the Post noted. "The resulting overhaul, enacted by President Bill Clinton, slashed cash benefits for millions of Americans in ways that GOP leaders now cite as a model."
In a February letter to President Joe Biden, Gaetz (R-Fla.) and four other House Republicans favorably cited the 1996 welfare reform law—which doubled extreme poverty—as an example of bipartisan cooperation that should be replicated to avert a catastrophic debt default.
During a press conference last month, Gaetz cast his call for tougher work requirements as an attempt to extract a "broader contribution" from "couch potatoes," which is often how Republicans demean people who receive federal food aid and other benefits—even though most who get such assistance work.
"The legislators that want new work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid are the same ones working to eliminate the estate tax so that billionaire heirs never have to work a day in their lives," the Patriotic Millionaires, a group that supports tax hikes on the rich, tweeted Tuesday. "It's not about work, it's about hurting the poor."
A recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that legislation introduced by Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) would strip Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from more than 10 million people, including 4 million children.
Research has repeatedly shown that SNAP work requirements, which add significant complexity and administrative burdens to the process of obtaining benefits, aren't effective at boosting employment.
"SNAP recipients who can work, do work," Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) said Tuesday. "Yet they do not earn enough to escape poverty. Taking away SNAP doesn't help anyone find work, it just makes them hungry and ensures the cycle of poverty continues."
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) echoed his colleague, writing on Twitter that "adding draconian hurdles to receive food assistance and benefits makes it harder for people to get back on their feet, not easier."
"The GOP should call it what it is—a cut to benefits," he added.
"Republicans still haven't released a budget, but they're continuing to make their priorities clear: They want to protect wealthy donors while cutting food assistance and healthcare from families."
As for Medicaid, state experiments with work requirements have proven disastrous. In Arkansas, a state that briefly imposed work requirements on Medicaid recipients during the Trump era before a judge intervened, more than 18,000 people lost health coverage due to the rules.
Some Republicans, including Gaetz and Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), want to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients nationwide, a move that would compound massive coverage losses stemming from the recent end of pandemic protections.
In February, Gaetz unveiled the Medicaid Work Requirements Act, which would mandate that adults deemed "able-bodied" work at least 120 hours a month, volunteer for at least 80 hours a month, or take part in a work training program for at least 80 hours a month to remain eligible for Medicaid benefits.
"Republicans still haven't released a budget, but they're continuing to make their priorities clear: They want to protect wealthy donors while cutting food assistance and healthcare from families," tweeted the Senate Budget Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
In a statement to the Post on Tuesday, White House spokesman Michael Kikukawa indicated that Biden will oppose adding new work requirements to SNAP and Medicaid as part of any deal to raise the debt ceiling.
"The president has been clear that he will oppose policies that push Americans into poverty or cause them to lose healthcare," said Kikukawa. "That's why he opposes Republican proposals that would take food assistance and Medicaid away from millions of people by adding burdensome, bureaucratic requirements."
As the GOP ramps up its assault on SNAP and other critical programs, members of the Senate Democratic caucus are urging the Biden administration to do everything in its power to bolster and expand federal food aid, which was slashed for many families earlier this year when pandemic-related enhancements lapsed.
In a letter to the heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Social Security Administration (SSA) earlier this week, a dozen Senate lawmakers called for action to remove "administrative burdens that create barriers to food security" for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients.
"SSI recipients are low-income people at least 65 years old, or blind or disabled adults or children," the lawmakers wrote. "To help alleviate food insecurity, SSA and USDA must create a seamless path to ensuring that SSI recipients and applicants can obtain SNAP benefits, one with minimal administrative burden. SNAP is the nation's largest anti-hunger program and SNAP benefits translate to fewer people in poverty and a healthier population."