May 17, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The House Republicans say they want to reward work. In fact, they want to police it

Everyone labors. But for the GOP, only certain work is legitimate.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

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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 the House Republicans. 

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

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

Work requirements are 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.

If we were in another time and place in American history, I’d expect Biden to agree to putting work requirements on food stamp recipients – if that’s what it took to get the Republicans to lift the borrowing cap, prevent the US from defaulting on its debt, and spare global 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, work requirements “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.” 

The following statement, from US Senator John Fetterman, of Pennsylvania, seems pretty 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 Hill reported 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. 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 who should pay for themselves. 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 Republicans tell us, because such a society — gasp! — would be unfair. Virtually everything about the Republican 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’s 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 humans (able-bodied or not) are sitting at home, 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 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. We take care of ourselves, we take care of each other, we labor in some kind of way. Taking children to school, tending to elders, preparing meals, vacuuming the thick layers of Goldfish crumbs from the car seats that just won’t come up – 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 phony. They’re already working! The real question should be: What work does the GOP recognize as legitimate?

There is no such thing as the imaginary Lazy Do-Nothing. The Republican position on safety net programs is in trouble. 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.

To be sure, there are lazy people, there are immoral people, there are fraudulent people. That they exist, however, is not a counterargument. Even terrible people have basic needs that generate economic activity. They should get some old-time religion. They should not be starved.

There was a time when the 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, those who enjoyed living in 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.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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