Kevin McCarthy Says Lifting Debt Ceiling Must Also Lift Lazy Guy Off Couch

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wants couch-sitting loafers to quit larding up the national debt.

McCarthy and his Republican colleagues have demanded President Joe Biden agree to cut spending and trim federal benefits to certain unemployed Americans in exchange for raising the “debt ceiling” so the government can keep borrowing money to pay for its expenses.

“We want to take people from poverty to jobs,” McCarthy said Monday of the Republican proposal for stricter “work requirements” for health and food benefits.

“It’s only for people who are able-bodied with no dependents,” McCarthy said in remarks he memorialized on Twitter. “I don’t think it’s right that we borrow money from China to pay for somebody that has no dependents, able-bodied, to sit on a couch.”

The work requirements contribute a tiny amount to the overall spending reduction Republicans have proposed, but McCarthy has highlighted them as a top priority. And now the couch surfer is a symbol of that priority.

The changes would apply to Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the much smaller Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The new rules would deny benefits to some childless adults without disabilities unless they work, volunteer or enroll in training for at least 20 hours per week. (SNAP and TANF already have work requirements along those lines, but Republicans would make them stricter.)

Biden has criticized the proposals but suggested he might be open to work requirements for SNAP and TANF so long as they wouldn’t increase poverty. McCarthy says the work requirements would only make people richer, citing the example of a 1996 welfare reform law that established the current rules for SNAP and TANF.

“When work departments first went in, every study that came out, you know what it found out? More people had jobs, people became more wealthy, government had spent less, more people paid into Social Security,” McCarthy told HuffPost.

The 1996 law froze spending on cash assistance to families and rewarded states that cut enrollment. Child poverty declined in the years following the law’s enactment but meandered back upward when the economy cooled off in the early 2000s, while TANF’s work requirements and red tape have resulted in the program providing benefits to a shrinking share of low-income families. One line of research has suggested that the changes exacerbated extreme cashless poverty.

Republicans and conservative think tanks have held up the 1996 law as a model for reforming other safety net programs, and that’s why Republicans have pitched expanding work requirements in SNAP and newly adding them to Medicaid.

“If you have an able-bodied person with no dependents, you’re gonna pay them to stay home or put in work requirements, help them to find that job, their life becomes better, they have more resources, they could buy a house, send their kids to college, and the country gets stronger,” McCarthy said.

The Congressional Budget Office, Capitol Hill’s own elite number-crunching think tank, last year published a major analysis of the likely effects of work requirements on Medicaid, SNAP and TANF recipients. It found that in some cases, just like McCarthy said, people get jobs and wind up with more money. But that’s not the whole story.

The 1996 welfare reform, for instance, boosted employment and earnings among some mothers, but the gains were offset by losses among others.

“The mothers who gained employment often saw their income boosted by higher earnings and receipt of additional tax credits, but many mothers who lost benefits because they did not meet the work requirements were left in deep poverty,” the CBO found.

As for SNAP, the program’s work requirement has slightly increased employment among the older workers subject to it, which is significant since the main change Republicans want to make is to apply the rules to SNAP recipients in their early 50s who are currently exempt. Overall, however, the change made people poorer.

“Earnings increased among recipients who worked more, but far more adults stopped receiving SNAP benefits because of the work requirement,” the CBO found. “Most of the adults who had their SNAP benefits terminated for failing to comply with the work requirement have very low income because few of them have earnings or receive cash payments.”