WSJ Celebrates Making It Harder for Poor People to Access Food

After holding the economy hostage for months, some Republicans are going through a bit of a depressive slump. “We got rolled,” is how one Republican congressmember (Roll Call, 6/6/23) described the outcome of the debt ceiling negotiations. “It was a bad deal.”

But don’t cry too much, guys! The Wall Street Journal is here to cheer you up, and remind you that, though you didn’t get all the austerity you wanted, you did get to hurt the poor a bit. Maybe not as much as you wanted, but life’s not always fair, is it?

As the Journal’s editorial board (5/30/23) recently wrote: “One reason the deal is worth passing: The provisions on work and welfare are incremental progress the GOP can build on.”

Most centrally, the bill included an expansion of work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka “food stamps”) for adults without a disability or children, raising the maximum age for those subject to work requirements from 49 to 54.

The editorial’s takeaway:

A major difference between the two political parties these days is that most Democrats favor a culture of dependency. The GOP’s task, which is popular with voters, is to rebuild a culture of work. The debt-ceiling bill starts to do that, which is one reason to support it.

Vulnerable people

 Work Requirements andWork Supports for Recipients of Means-Tested Benefits

CBO (6/22): “Work requirements in SNAP and Medicaid have reduced benefits more than they have increased people’s earnings.”

It’s an odd statement to make when employment for prime-age workers (those between 25 and 54) is at its highest level in more than two decades, thanks in large part to the Democrats’ decision to go big in their Covid relief package in the spring of 2021. And it’s particularly odd when you consider the utter lack of evidence for the idea that expanding work requirements for food vouchers will increase employment in any significant way.

As Shawn Fremstad has summarized for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the available evidence on the specific work requirement that is being expanded under the debt ceiling legislation

tells a relatively consistent story about its impacts. There is no question that the work test reduces access to SNAP food vouchers among vulnerable people with few resources. On employment, the best read of the evidence is that it has no impact on employment, or only a very small one.

In its 2022 analysis of the existing literature, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office similarly reported:

SNAP’s work requirement has probably boosted employment for some adult recipients without dependents but has reduced income, on average, across all recipients. Earnings increased among recipients who worked more, but far more adults stopped receiving SNAP benefits because of the work requirement.

So basically we can expect the new work requirements to definitely take food vouchers (in other words, food) away from a bunch of people—perhaps 225,000—and maybe slightly increase employment. Oh, yeah, they could also worsen physical and mental health, and increase reliance on food banks. Is that what rebuilding a culture of work looks like?

Twisted logic

The Journal apparently greets these outcomes with a grin, as the kind of “incremental progress the GOP can build on.” And it salivates for more. Reaching peak evil, the editorial board bemoans:

One mistake in the debt deal is that the food-stamp work requirement exempts veterans and the homeless. These Americans could perhaps most benefit from the dignity and stability of work.

Notice the twisted logic here: Allowing people minimal access to food resources (SNAP benefits for a single person max out at $281 a month) is an indulgence that harms them. On the other hand, imposing punitive measures on people, forcing them to prove that they’re working a certain amount each month, that’s actually helping them. It’s teaching them the value of hard work, giving them dignity. Because the real problem is that these people just haven’t had enough of a fire lit under their ass. How do you address homelessness? Just threaten the unhoused with starvation, and I guess everyone left after that just deserves to be homeless.

The unspoken premise is that people need to prove their worth to have access to food. Rather than having food guaranteed as a basic human right, people should be threatened with starvation. That way they’re insecure, and willing to accept the first job that comes around, no matter how bad the conditions and pay. That a major newspaper takes this editorial line is horrifying—though, given that the Journal is owned by right-wing billionaire Rupert Murdoch, unfortunately not surprising.

‘Unemployment too attractive’

 Make Welfare Reform Part of the Debt-Ceiling Deal

In the United States, which has more than 200,000 people living on the street, “public policy has made unemployment too attractive,” according to Wall Street Journal columnist Jason L. Riley (5/23/23). 

And the Journal isn’t just showing up for the celebration, either; it’s been hard at work pushing to cut people off from government benefits for a while. In one earlier piece (5/24/23), the editorial board lashed out at states for exempting too many people from already-existing SNAP work requirements. In another (5/17/23), it invoked the old lazy welfare recipient trope, whining that government assistance through programs like SNAP shouldn’t be “a permanent sinecure in return for doing nothing.”

As the debt ceiling drama unfolded, the paper published a slew of anti-poor essays arguing for increased hurdles to accessing government assistance:

  • “Work Requirements for Welfare Aren’t ‘Wacko’” (5/12/23)
  • “Make Welfare Reform Part of the Debt-Ceiling Deal” (5/23/23)
  • “Work Requirements Still Work” (5/29/23)
  • “Work Requirements and the Lost Lessons of 1996” (6/2/23)

By far the most absurd was “Make Welfare Reform Part of the Debt-Ceiling Deal” (5/23/23), by columnist Jason L. Riley, which included some incredible lines, like:

Asking something of people on the dole is perfectly rational, but liberals in Washington have long prioritized making the poor comfortable over helping them out of poverty.


Too many healthy adults are opting out of work because public policy has made unemployment too attractive.

And, for the ending:

Mr. McCarthy is right to assume that most people don’t want their tax dollars being used by the government to subsidize laziness. I once saw a bumper sticker that read “Work harder: Millions of welfare recipients are depending on you.” So are a lot of liberals in Washington.

It would be hard for the Onion to come up with a more perfect caricature of conservative mean-spiritedness. And it’s hard not to wonder whether that sticker is still proudly plastered on Riley’s bumper.

Remarkably misleading numbers

 Work Requirements for Welfare Aren’t ‘Wacko’

A Wall Street Journal op-ed (5/12/23) declared Arkansas’ Medicaid work requirements a success because people on Medicaid in the state got jobs—at a time of rapid economic growth. A more serious look at the impact of the requirements “found no evidence that low-income adults had increased their employment” (Health Affairs, 9/20).

Meanwhile, another op-ed points to where the Journal believes the debt ceiling deal fell short. In “Work Requirements for Welfare Aren’t ‘Wacko’” (5/12/23), Nick Stehle of the Foundation for Government Accountability holds up Arkansas’s experience with Medicaid work requirements to argue for a federal expansion of such work requirements. Stehle throws out some remarkably misleading numbers to suggest that Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas reduced dependence by boosting employment and incomes: “Tens of thousands went back to work, and more than 14,000 boosted their incomes enough to leave Medicaid entirely.”

But people move on and off Medicaid each year because of changes in job status and earnings. What matters is whether the work requirements led to any increase in employment that wouldn’t have happened in the absence of the requirements. A thorough 2020 analysis (Health Affairs, 9/20) found that they did not: “Work requirements did not increase employment over 18 months of follow-up.” The added hurdles were incredibly effective at reducing enrollment, though—18,000 people lost coverage while they were in effect. And they were great at aggravating all sorts of hardship, with disenrolled individuals struggling much more with medical bills and delays in care than people who were able to stay enrolled.

The Journal was totally fine with printing Stehle’s shoddy, propagandistic analysis, handing the microphone to the vice president of communications of a group known for peddling junk science. But the paper seemed to realize that the likelihood of getting its way on Medicaid work requirements was slim, and it didn’t push the policy much in editorials. In one piece (5/17/23), the editorial board advised, “Now Republicans can hold firm, and even if Mr. Biden won’t agree on Medicaid, they can bank the incremental wins and build on the progress later.” In another (5/24/23), it wrote, “If Democrats can’t abide work in return for free healthcare, they should at least be willing to fix the work loopholes in food stamps.”

The obvious question, though, is: Why should there be any condition for “free” healthcare (i.e. healthcare paid for through progressive taxes)? Why shouldn’t it be a basic right guaranteed to all? It’s not like we can’t afford it.

The same goes for food. Why shouldn’t we guarantee decent nutrition to everyone by ensuring that the worst off have enough money to pay for food? Again, it’s not like we can’t afford it. The progressive economist Dean Baker has estimated that reducing the pay of the five highest-paid CEOs by half would generate savings equal to the entire SNAP budget, and that waste in the financial sector eats up at least six times as much money as the SNAP budget each year.

 Gains from restructuring markets, in units of SNAP spending

A host of progressive reforms to markets, outlined by the economist Dean Baker in his 2016 book Rigged, would generate savings that would dwarf the SNAP budget.

For a reader of the Journal, this thinking must appear outlandish. Because what’s common sense in the pages of the paper is not basic decency, but general disdain for poor people, and extreme skepticism of their worthiness of any sort of governmental contribution to their well-being. By teaching people to celebrate the imposition of work requirements on a new cohort of SNAP-eligible adults, rather than being outraged by a blatant attempt to increase hunger and insecurity, the Wall Street Journal is doing little more than feeding hatred of the poor.

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