Keeping Vulnerable Americans on Track

Work: the Key to Prosperity

Productive participation in America’s communities

Work is the pathway out of poverty—and connection to work-related activity, including training and education, must begin when beneficiaries enroll in safety-net programs rather than as they exit.

While the safety-net programs are effective at alleviating absolute deprivation, if low-income recipients are not able to return to employment, they are almost guaranteed to remain poor, and their families are more likely to experience intergenerational poverty.

Work enables safety-net recipients to provide for themselves and their families and to give back to their communities. They gain a stream of income to live on, learn skills, and attain social capital. They begin finding ways to save to help secure their financial future. They may gain health insurance, employer-based retirement funds, and other job-related benefits.

States should pay particular attention to safety-net recipients who are unemployed for over six months. Long-term unemployment can have a direct impact on future earnings, lowering future income by as much as 15%. Individuals who are unemployed longer than six months also experience diminished skill sets, lose work contact and connections, and have a higher likelihood of encountering stigmatization when seeking to re-enter the workforce.

Employment also increases well-being. In fact, research reveals that work leads to higher social capital—connection and integration in the individual’s wider community. People gain self-esteem from earning a living that a welfare check cannot match. Studies associate work with better familial relationships, more civic engagement, better mental health, less substance abuse, better physical health, longer life expectancy, and greater satisfaction with one’s life.

When a household is separated from the workforce, it can also negatively impact their overall well-being. Research shows that when people are unemployed for months at a time, they spend less time with family and friends. Long-term unemployment also significantly impacts health outcomes, lowering life expectancy by as much as a year and a half for a 40-year-old worker, and increasing depressive symptoms.

State leaders who connect their low-income neighbors to work help them find a path out of poverty and into a better life.

Solving the Problems

States should require work or a work-related activity, such as training or education, for at least one work-capable adult per each household as a condition of safety-net assistance. We include work interventions for parents because parental work is key for children to rise above poverty and escape intergenerational poverty. By working, parents model the habits necessary to succeed in the workforce for their children. Parents are also able to earn more and save more—and thereby direct their own futures.

Married couples with children requiring care may elect to have only one parent work. Work-related activity can include job training or education to increase the earning potential of the individual. We emphasize “work-capable” instead of “able-bodied” in recognition that persons with disabilities are often quite capable of employment and are productive members of society. The exceptions are those truly incapable of work due to illness or a disability.

How to implement

State Legislature

  • Consolidating safety-net programs and integrating them with workforce services, would encourage work-related activity regardless of the safety-net program a person or family might receive.
  • Policymakers should eliminate or strictly limit the state application for waivers from food stamp work requirements for ABAWDs. Under this work requirement, an individual is time-limited on the program if they do not work. Without a waiver, the ABAWD requirement applies to adult beneficiaries between 18 and 50 years of age who are not disabled and do not have any children or other dependents in the home. These work expectations only require work or preparation for work for 20 hours per week.
  • States should track and report all TANF households that engage in work—disregarding the caseload reduction credit, which allows states to lower their work participation requirements. States should standardize TANF work requirements with SNAP requirements (as described above).
  • In housing, states should seek approval from the federal U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a “Moving to Work” demonstration and identify which public housing tenants may be encouraged to participate in economic self-sufficiency activities for 8 hours per month.

In SNAP, states also have the option to implement general work requirements for work-capable beneficiaries not subject to the ABAWD work requirement. Because the states determine and enforce sanctions, and federal statute only sets the maximum penalty, the general work requirement is not usually enforced. States should implement this general work requirement for all able-bodied beneficiaries between the ages of 16 and 60. States should ask these individuals to meet with a caseworker to identify barriers and then register work or participate in education, training, or paid work at least 5 hours a week.

  • For families with children, states can require at least one parent to be employed or engaged in employment and training for 5 hours a week.
  • States can exempt parents with children under the age of six.
  • Exceptions can be allowed for youth, the elderly and frail, or conditions that make the person unemployable.


Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) – National.

AFDC was founded in the Social Security Act of 1935 to support mothers with children through monthly cash aid.1Congressional Research Service, The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Block Grant: A Legislative History (Congressional Research Service, October 6, 2021), Policymakers at the time considered the program to be a “mother’s pension” and did not expect these recipients to work. By the 1990s, subsidizing families where the majority of mothers—nearly 9 in 10—didn’t work had profoundly negative consequences for those families and their children.Most remained in long-term poverty, subsisting on the rolls for over 8 years. Long-term unemployment made intergenerational child poverty worse.2“Section 8. Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Related Programs (Title IV-A),” Background Material and Data on Programs within the Jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means (Green Book), Program Descriptions, U.S. Government Printing Office,

The 1996 reform, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, brought major transformation: Families had to work or prepare for work through education or training. The employment of single mothers increased from 51% in 1992 to 76% in 2000.3Danilo Trisi, “The Myth That Single Mothers Don’t Work,” Off the Charts (blog), Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, October 9, 2012, Child poverty fell sharply by almost 8% between 1996 and 2014.4Scott Winship, Poverty after welfare reform (Manhattan Institute, 2016),

One comprehensive review of welfare-to-work programs, conducted by MDRC and published in 2009, concluded that such programs were effective at both reducing welfare expenditures and increasing participants’ income (Greenberg et al., iii).5Bass and Valdez, Promising Approaches. See also Dan Bloom and Charles Michalopoulos, How Welfare and Work Policies Affect Employment and Income: A Synthesis of Research (Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, 2001), ES-2, “The same research concluded that programs that assign enrollees to unpaid jobs generated limited benefits for individuals or cost savings to government. A similar MDRC analysis from 2001 concluded that job-search-first programs “led to larger gains for more disadvantaged groups, such as people without a high school credential … [and] were also less expensive to operate.”

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Maine.

After the Great Recession, Maine was one of the first states to reinstate the Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents (ABAWD) work requirement for SNAP benefits in 2014. Maine had industries—such as the blueberry industry—in need of workers, plus a large population of childless, non-disabled, non-working adults on food stamps. By reinstating the federal requirement, many childless adults found employment and improved their personal financial situations, enabling many of them to earn income and no longer need food assistance.6Josh Archambault, “New Report Proves Maine’s Welfare Reforms Are Working,” Forbes, May 19, 2016,

There are other ways to encourage low-income beneficiaries, particularly the work-capable, if the states focus on beneficiaries who report zero earnings. By asking healthy, working-age adult welfare beneficiaries to participate in a face-to-face recertification at reasonably frequent intervals, caseworkers can better assess why these individuals are reporting zero income. They can determine whether beneficiaries face homelessness, struggle with their mental health, or are suffering from substance abuse.

Only by encountering the person and learning about their distinct barriers can an individual action plan be designed to surmount those difficulties.

How to implement

State Legislatures

  • States should set annual in-person recertification reviews for work-capable individuals who report zero income.
  • After identifying work-capable adults participating in safety-net programs who report zero income and are not connected to work, state policymakers should either require or encourage beneficiaries to participate in effective job training programs.
  • States should require individuals with addiction or behavioral problems to seek effective counseling with outside organizations, including nonprofit organizations.
  • States should require caseworkers to engage with SSI and SSDI at CDRs or more frequently to inform beneficiaries of their opportunities to return to work or increase earnings options, including substantial gainful activity, trial work period options, and the Ticket to Work Program. They should connect all individuals with continuing disability to support services so they have an option of rewarding employment with accommodations for their disability as needed.


Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) National.

State agencies may choose to recertify SNAP households more than once every 12 months. They may conduct one face-to-face interview with that household during that period.1Certification of Eligible Households, Recertification, 7 C.F.R. § 273.14 (2021),

Public Housing Authority (PHA) National.

The public housing authorities must determine compliance once every 12 months with community service and self-sufficiency requirements.

Medicaid National.

The state Medicaid agency must recertify participants every 12 months.2Eligibility in the States, District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, Periodic renewal of Medicaid eligibility, 42 C.F.R. §435.916 (2017), Many states do not require face-to-face recertifications, opting for ex parte renewals (automatic electronic checks).

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Supplemental Security Income (SSI) National.    

In both SSI and SSDI, Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) are scheduled every three years, or every five to seven years if the medical condition is not expected to improve.