By Anne Price, President

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Earlier this month, the Trump administration quietly announced that it will allow individual states to impose work requirements on “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients — those aged 19 to 64 who are not disabled — as a condition of eligibility.

There is ample evidence from other social safety net programs that work requirements do little to help support people in jobs over the long run, and are in fact more likely to push struggling families off the rolls and into deeper poverty.

Despite this evidence, ten states now have work or community engagement proposals pending with the administration, and Kentucky was the first to be approved. Kentucky officials have already hinted that those who qualified under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) expansion will have to earn dentist and vision benefits by taking financial literacy classes or by getting a GED. Those who are not elderly or disabled will have to pay premiums and report changes to their income or employment status.

Why is there still popular support for work requirements when we know they further penalize struggling families? The answer is troubling, but simple: Americans have strongly held views about the connection of work to personhood.

Much of t­­­­­­he power of “work first” thinking comes from its close connection to people’s sense of what it means to be a Person. Insight’s research on economic security and race reveals that most Americans equate joblessness with a lack of agency, and thus being diminished as a person, or somehow less moral.

Holding a job in American culture is not simply about economic success. The process of becoming a Full Person can be seen in the American transition from childhood to adulthood — in which the dependent, immature, undisciplined, free-loading child gradually becomes the independent, mature, disciplined adult who begins to make a contribution to his or her family or the larger community through work. Moving from non-working to working is the central, obligatory aspect of this transition.

Americans’ misgivings about “giving handouts” to adults is aligned with this thinking. Unless a handout leads to work, it is seen as short-circuiting this process by creating a sort of endless, expensive, immature dependency in people.

This “work is personhood” frame is profoundly discrediting to government spending, which is thus viewed as being wasted on a self-perpetuating system of dependency. This thinking provides an effective, ostensible rationale for racism. While few white people will admit to biological racism, many associate Blacks with “not working” — and therefore with the conceptual implications that they have a diminished morality, and a diminished claim to Personhood. This harmful, pervasive message has also seeped into the consciousness of many communities of color.

Dorian Warren, Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and President of the Center for Community Change Action, notes that a policy change to impose work requirements is built on “age-old racist and sexist tropes about ‘lazy’ people who don’t want to work, especially people of color and women of color.” The notion that lazy people live off the hard work of (White) American citizens has deep historical roots in policies and narratives that are highly racialized and genderized.

For example, just after the Civil War, the federal government instituted a large social welfare program to support injured veterans and their widows. It was fraught with questions about morality and the deserving and the undeserving. It was an unprecedented U.S. pension system, but as the rules were expanded and more veterans and their dependents filled the rolls, public outcry over who was a morally deserving pensioner ensued.

According to Michelle Shang at the University of Chicago, “critics and government officials often reified gender norms and race stereotypes, identifying only those who followed these traditional mores as deserving of government pensions.” Widows who could not offer concrete documentation of their marriages, as well as those who remarried or requested large sums, were seen as suspect by the government.

Shang adds that the public discourse became obsessed with Black women as being purported pension cheats. According to historian Sarah Handley Cousins, Black male veterans also faced great difficulties in adjudicating pension cases because of racist notions about their inferiority and “inclination toward sloth and trickery,” which resulted in outright rejection or minimal payments.

There has been a long-standing conviction among both liberals and conservatives that we need more punitive measures to control women and to ensure there is social order in Black communities. Americans have been either explicit or — through inaction — complicit in supporting harmful narratives and damaging economic policies, many based on the dangerous idea that work and personhood are inextricably linked.

If we are going to turn back the tide of this growing trend, we must first be willing to invest in shifting the narratives that undergird these damaging policies and deem low-income white women and people of color as undeserving. We know it in our hearts, if not all of us in our minds, that work is only one tiny piece of the rich, incredible, complex fabric that makes us each unique, important, and human.

The Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s mission is to help people and communities become, and remain, economically secure.

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