This is a distinction that advocates of an unconditional basic income see as pernicious and that those who want to ease up on work requirements see as needlessly punitive. But it is a distinction that makes eminent public policy sense. The welfare reformers of the 1980s and 1990s didn’t call for work requirements because they wanted to punish the poor. They did so because of mounting evidence that worklessness in high-poverty neighborhoods contributed to the entrenchment of poverty and to the social isolation of those living in welfare-dependent households. Drawing welfare recipients into the workforce was seen as the best way to get them on the ladder to upward mobility. Despite massive shifts in the economy that have been particularly hard on less-skilled adults, work requirements have been a success by and large. Meanwhile, experiments conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by the federal government found that a no-strings-attached basic income reduced work effort and encouraged marital breakup. Given what we’ve learned about the consequences of family breakdown for children, and particularly for male children, in the years since, this is nothing to scoff at.
Moreover, whatever their practical effects, work requirements are central to the moral legitimacy of poverty-fighting efforts in the United States.
In her essay on “Rethinking Welfare Rights,” Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, identified a deep-seated, widely held set of beliefs among Americans about welfare. While most Americans accept the idea that we as a society have a shared responsibility for the well-being of the poor, they also differentiate between those who deserve help and those who don’t. Those who deserve help are those who make an effort to support themselves and their families to the extent they can. Many people simply can’t earn enough to support themselves by dint of disability, limited skills, or a lack of the community ties that enable one to identify and pursue economic opportunities.
And so the role of government, according to Wax, is to help close the gap between what people can earn by doing their best to provide for themselves and what they need to lead decent lives. This gap is real, and there is a distinct possibility that it will grow as our economy and society continue to evolve. To protect programs that close this gap, and to grow them if necessary, it is vitally important that welfare disbursements are perceived as fair. In the long run, those who choose to work will not support welfare programs that appear to offer a better deal to those who do not, nor should they be expected to do so. The failure to enforce work requirements thus undermines the legitimacy of welfare, and it endangers the good that welfare can do.
This notion of “conditional reciprocity” is particularly important in diverse societies. A number of scholars, including the economists Edward Glaeser and Alberto Alesina, have found that more diverse societies are less likely to support high levels of social spending than more homogeneous societies. But more recently, Bo Rothstein, a Swedish political scientist and defender of the welfare state, has found that what really undermines social solidarity and social trust is not diversity per se, but rather the perception that public authorities are corrupt, dishonest, discriminatory, and partial as opposed to clean, impartial, and honest. One of the reasons the Danish welfare state enjoys such widespread support, for instance, isn’t just Denmark’s famous ethnic homogeneity: It’s also that Danish work requirements are extremely strict by international standards, and they’ve grown tighter over time. Unemployed Danes must demonstrate their “labor market availability” by searching for jobs, taking jobs at local job centers, and taking part in so-called activation programs run by hard-nosed caseworkers. The Danish state is indeed generous, but its generosity comes with strings attached, and that’s how Danish voters like it. We could learn a thing or two from them.
There is far more to say about how we can fix America’s social welfare programs. But before we can expand them or shrink them or modernize them, we must first ensure that they rest on a solid moral foundation. And that, ultimately, is what work requirements are all about.