On 2 August 2018, Jason Furman’s “Work Requirements Hurt Poor Families—and Won’t Work” appeared in the online Wall Street Journal. In the article, Furman notes the current sociopolitical forces that prompt attention to continued unemployment and asserts that proposals to increase work requirements for government benefits such as food stamps are likely to be counterproductive. He goes on to offer context for the food stamp program and its recipients before noting specific problems with increases in work requirements. Kentucky’s pending motions toward such increases serve as a case study for such problems; the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies is also referenced as pointing out that work requirements are ineffective. Effective solutions to the current problem of lingering unemployment are then noted, and a statement of need precedes a closing return to Furman’s thesis.
Some things about the article attract attention. The stated status of the author is one. While no few former presidential advisors assume academic positions, Furman’s reported title of “professor of practice” seems somewhat odd. Most such positions I’ve seen are somewhat glorified adjunct roles, offering nominal dignity (much like the visiting professorships I’ve had and hold) and an affiliation, but little if any institutional power and far less security than an unadorned–thus, “more important”–professorship. Admittedly, given his earlier White House role, Furman is not likely to need a “more powerful” academic job, but it still seems unusual for him to have so relatively minor a post (and the relative nature of it matters, to be sure).
Unusual, too, is the suggestion, even if one “not ready to become law today,” of federal employment. There are ways in which employment by the state to draw support from the state is a sensible idea; if it is assumed that people should work to be able to live, and if a government actually believes that people should be able to live, then governmental work programs ought necessarily to follow. And the results of such programs can still be seen. For example, in that long-ago time when I did my student teaching, I did so in a building built by the FDR-era Civilian Conservation Corps; it is a beautiful building, richly detailed if not maintained so well as it deserves, and still teaches no few students. Other such edifices are ready to be found, still standing proudly after so many years–and if such things might not be built again, there are still roads that need fixing and bridges, and the things put up by past generations could be made strong and whole again.
But that the idea might be good does not mean that it is the way to address the issue towards which it might well be directed. For the idea that those who cannot find work should be penalized for the unwillingness of employers to hire them is ludicrous–and it is not necessarily dependent on the qualifications of those not in reliable work. I spent quite a while looking for work, sending out applications and resumes by the score, looking for work in entry-level and other jobs (about which more here), and I could not get hired. I hold a terminal degree; I am eminently qualified to do any number of jobs, and I am not too proud to do them, and I could not get hired. Is it any surprise that those less credentialed would struggle with something entirely beyond their control? Should they then be punished for it? Is not the simple fact of being poor in the United States rebuke enough?