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Democrats urge Biden to reject GOP demands for new work requirements for aid programs


With no deal on raising the federal debt ceiling and on the edge of a possible default, Democrats are pursuing other options. Among them, a long-shot procedural move to force a vote to raise the debt ceiling. Meanwhile, Democrats are urging President Biden to reject Republican demands for tougher work requirements for federal aid programs. GOP lawmakers argue the requirements would lift people out of poverty. I spoke with Rebecca Vallas about that proposal. She's a senior fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation.

REBECCA VALLAS: They call them work requirements, but the dirty little secret about these proposals is they have nothing to do with actually helping anyone work. Research shows that having health insurance and adequate food is associated not only with better health but also with increased work capacity. And that ends up translating into higher wages and earnings. What they're actually about is using bureaucracy to strip basic assistance from struggling workers and families by wrapping them up in red tape. I'm a former legal aid lawyer. I often refer to these kinds of proposals as death by a thousand paper cuts.

So what these proposals do is they strip away basic assistance, like food and housing or health care, away from people who aren't able to supply proof of their work hours or proof that they're exempt from the requirements. So take, for example, the state of Arkansas. Back in 2018, under then-President Trump's effort to strip Medicaid away from people who couldn't find work as part of his larger effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, some 18,000 people lost health coverage in Arkansas within just months of the state implementing that policy in 2018. Political scientists have a term for this. It's called bureaucratic disentitlement, taking basic assistance away from people by heaping ridiculous amounts of bureaucracy on them.

MARTÍNEZ: President Biden has supported work requirements for federal benefits in the past. 1996 - he was in the U.S. Senate. That's when Congress passed legislation that reshaped the American welfare system. Here he is on the Senate floor at the time talking about an amendment that ultimately did not pass.


JOE BIDEN: The Biden-Specter bill says that anyone who wants to receive welfare must sign an individual responsibility contract so that they are forced to agree up front to the conditions placed on receiving the benefit, and so that they will have a plan from day one on how to get themselves off of welfare.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Rebecca, I know that was a long time ago. It was 1996. But he did make those comments. He did hold those beliefs back then. Does that signal to you at all that President Biden could once again support them in order to make a deal with Republicans?

VALLAS: Yeah, I have to say, I really appreciate that the White House appears to be holding strong on behalf of struggling workers and families in the context of this debt ceiling hostage situation. President Biden has made very clear he would reject any deal that increases poverty in the United States. And it's also been incredibly heartening to hear how Speaker Jeffries similarly made clear that these types of proposals are a nonstarter with Democrats. Let's be clear about what is actually happening in Washington right now. House Republicans are calling to bankrupt the country if Democrats in Congress and in the White House don't agree to take food and health care away from hundreds of thousands of struggling people. That is the political football that's being tossed around in Washington right now.

MARTÍNEZ: Rebecca Vallas is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Rebecca, thanks.

VALLAS: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIABEATS AND ZNOF'S "LATER!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 17, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier version of this interview included a reference by the guest to Hakeem Jeffries as House speaker. In fact, Jeffries is minority leader.