Republican work requirements: A solution to an imaginary problem

Republican work requirements: A solution to an imaginary problem
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It’s still unclear whether the president is open to putting work requirements on citizens who are receiving federal jobless assistance, namely food stamps, amid this week’s negotiations over the debt ceiling with House Republicans.

The House Republicans visited the White House Tuesday. Various headlines have said work requirements are on the table. A close reading of the news, however, reveals that Joe Biden’s remarks are more ambiguous than reported.

What we do know, in the absence of a clear read on the president, is that work requirements used to be a no-brainer for congressional Democrats, as betraying the poor was a politically cheap way of appeasing congressional Republicans who could not, would not stop hating poor people for the fact of their poverty.

READ MORE: Kevin McCarthy demands work requirements for 'all the programs' to avoid looming debt default

If we were in another time and place in American history, I’d expect Biden to agree to put work requirements on food stamp recipients – if that’s what it took to get the Republicans to lift the borrowing cap, prevent default and spare markets the pain of hurtling over the edge of the valley of the shadow of death.

Yet here we are.

That’s worth pointing out.

According to Reuters, placing work requirements on food aid “would face stiff opposition from progressive members of Biden's Democratic Party, who have already signaled they would never support an idea they consider cruel.”

READ MORE: Food insecurity now affects almost one-third of US college students: report

The following statement, from US Senator John Fetterman, seems typical. "I didn’t come here to take food away from hungry kids, and that’s exactly what this proposal would do: a proposal that would make Scrooge blush. The Hillreported Tuesday that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told the party’s Steering and Policy Committee that “work requirements are a nonstarter.”

But this isn’t the only thing worth pointing out.

We should also point out that the more the Democrats stand against work requirements on food stamps, the more ridiculous the demand for them seems. The reason work requirements did not seem ridiculous in the past was because the Democrats accepted them as legitimate. They are no longer accepted. They are no longer legitimate. Instead, work requirements are revealed for what they’ve always been – a solution to an imaginary problem.

What imaginary problem? The Lazy Do-Nothing. You know him. You can’t possibly not know him. His image haunts all debate over social safety net programs, not just food stamps. (House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters Tuesday that work requirements would be good for “all the programs.”) Why?

Because, the Republicans tell us, we can’t have a society in which working people pay for lazy people. As House Whip Steve Scalise said: “That single mom that’s working two or three jobs right now to make ends meet under this tough economy, she doesn’t want to have to pay for somebody who’s sitting at home.”

We can’t have a society like that, the GOP tells us, because such a society would be unfair. Virtually everything about their position on social safety net programs (not only food stamps but also Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security) rests on the power of our collective belief in The Lazy Do-Nothing. If anything were to happen to him, the Republicans would be in serious trouble.

Which is why I’m saying there is no such thing.

It’s all makebelieve.

Do you know anyone who sits at home and does nothing? I don’t. I can’t even imagine it. Just being alive takes a degree of labor that should confound the allegation that human beings (able-bodied or not) are sitting at home and doing nothing. Just being alive has the consequence of markets arising to provide goods and services, the exchange of which generates economic activity, profits and, if we’re lucky, some variation of the common good.

But, of course, most of us do more than what’s needed to stay alive. We have jobs, we have families, we have school, we have lifetimes to build on (in youth). We take care of ourselves, we take care of each other, we labor in some kind of way. (If you have raised kids or are raising kids, you know that’s the hardest job.) Taking children to school, tending to elders, preparing meals, vacuuming up the thick layers of Goldfish crumbs from the car seats – this is all work. All of this labor generates economic activity, even profits, in one way or another.

The question should not be whether to put work requirements on food stamp recipients. That’s a phony question. They’re already working! The question should be what kind of work do the Republicans recognize as legitimate?

There is no such thing as the Lazy Do-Nothing. The Republicans don’t have anything to stand on. But more than that, once the right question is asked, they are revealed to be prejudiced against the various nobilities of work. They say they want to reward work. In fact, they want to police work. They want to ensure only certain work is rewarded. Meanwhile, the others are punished.

There was a time when the congressional Democrats were aligned with the illiberal view that only certain work was legitimate – back when the party could not succeed without the support of those who did that kind of work, that is, work that underwrote the existence of white middle-class nuclear families.

The Democrats have options now. At any rate, even those white middle-class nuclear families need help. (Hunger is a widespread social ill these days.) They don’t have to pretend that the Lazy Do-Nothing is real. They don’t have to acquiesce to the Republican Party’s sadism. They can say no. I hope they do.

READ MORE: Is Biden open to work requirements on food aid? Maybe

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