Republicans have argued that the requirements are a way to cut down on federal caseloads, and the idea that people should try to work for their benefits, in principle, enjoy broad support, even among Democrats. “It’s good policy and it’s also remarkably popular,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who made welfare overhaul a focal point of his “Contract with America” plan and who succeeded in enacting such a proposal in 1996 in collaboration with President Bill Clinton.
“I’d like to see Republicans running on this. I’d like to see Republicans and the White House spending September and October running on this,” Mr. Gingrich said, but he added that for now, “This is more of a notion than a program.”
The current House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, would like to embark on a work force development and entitlement reform initiative as ambitious as Mr. Gingrich’s campaign for welfare overhaul. But Senate Republicans have rejected it as too risky for an election year and some local officials have worried about the possible shift of displaced federal aid recipients to state programs and nonprofit charities.
Work requirements, modeled on those mandated by the 1996 welfare overhaul for able-bodied adults receiving cash assistance, are a less ambitious alternative. The approach has the advantage of speed: The Trump administration was able to move quickly to allow states to obtain waivers that allow them to impose work mandates on Medicaid recipients.
But there are downsides. Permanent changes to food aid and housing assistance require legislative approval in funding measures, like the farm bill, which often require Democratic support to pass. In addition, the work requirements are targeting programs in which the vast majority of recipients are already working, in school, disabled or otherwise incapable of holding down a job.
It is not clear whether Mr. Trump himself delayed issuing the executive order. But aides said it was never a big priority for the president and White House officials are content with carrying out the initiatives one by one.
Mr. Trump’s team, led by Andrew Bremberg, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, and the White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, have been working to determine what could be done without legislative action, prodding federal agencies to impose work requirements or grant waivers to states that want to enforce them.
Mr. Bremberg has been especially eager to push Agriculture Department officials to draft a plan to limit the exemptions granted to high-unemployment states trying to opt out of a 20-year-old work requirement provision for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the program that replaced food stamps a decade ago.
But the difficulty in taking even this relatively straightforward action illustrates the challenges in instituting a work mandate that seems, to many Republicans, like common sense.
The government, for instance, already imposes a three-month benefit limit on able-bodied, childless adults who receive SNAP benefits — if recipients fail to work or volunteer 80 hours a month. But 36 states currently have hardship waivers allowing nonworking adults to receive SNAP, and states, many of them represented by powerful Republican congressional delegations, are not eager to see thousands of poor people flood local public and private food assistance programs because their federal benefits have been cut off.
The underlying problem, progressive economists and advocates for poor people say, is that the work requirements do not actually work, and few studies examine how to make them more effective.
Welfare recipients forced off the rolls by the 1996 law were only slightly more likely to get jobs than people who continued to receive benefits, and the incentive effects of the work requirement dissipated over time, according to a University of Chicago study in 2005.
“This all starts with the assumption that if you make people miserable enough, they will go out and find a job,” said LaDonna Pavetti, the vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.
“The reality of peoples’ lives is much more complicated than that. It doesn’t take into account the barriers they face, but also the color of their skin, their prison record, and barriers like education, transportation, child care and the lack of good-paying jobs where they live,” she said. “None of these proposals have adequate resources to deal with any of those barriers.”
Mr. Bremberg, in an interview, said: “The goal is not to kick people off support programs. The goal is to get people into productive jobs.” He added that the president’s main objective was matching millions of able-bodied potential workers with millions of jobs that remain unfilled because of the shortage of suitable workers.
Still, the resources dedicated to increased work force development in Mr. Trump’s 2019 budget, released last month, are relatively modest compared with the deep cuts proposed for safety net programs. And the work requirements come in addition to the administration’s proposal to drastically cut domestic spending, including a plan to trim food aid by $213 billion over the next decade.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is slated to absorb a $6 billion cut next year under the president’s budget, has begun looking at ways to expand a small demonstration project centered on work requirements into its public housing and voucher programs.
The effort to impose work requirements on people who receive Medicaid is moving faster, in part, because the action is being initiated by a handful of governors in conservative states eager to shed the additional costs imposed on them by the gradual withdrawal of subsidies granted in the Affordable Care Act.
This month, Seema Verma, who leads the federal agency that oversees the Medicaid and Medicare programs, announced that she had granted a waiver to Arkansas to impose work requirements after inviting states to apply for exemptions in January. The Arkansas program, the third waiver approved, initially targets about 40,000 people ages 30 to 49.
It requires that recipients have a job, enroll in school or volunteer for at least 80 hours in any given month. There are broad exceptions for pregnant women and people being treated for addiction.
Still, there is disagreement over whether the plan will work.
Mr. Rector, an enthusiastic supporter of the SNAP work requirements, recently published a widely circulated analysis of Medicaid that declared the new waivers counterproductive — because they would simply drive more poor patients to emergency rooms, shifting the cost burden from the federal government to localities and hospitals.
The governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, who pushed for the waiver, admitted the plan could boomerang, but said it was essential to achieving his goal of shrinking the Medicaid rolls in his state, which increased by 330,000 under his predecessor, Mike Beebe, a Democrat.
“It’s possible that there’s going to be some that moved off the Medicaid rolls because they don’t comply with the work requirements and they get sick or in an accident and they wind up going to the emergency room,” Mr. Hutchinson said in an interview last week. “But I really believe it will be minimal.”
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