Publication Date



[Excerpt] Congress is again debating work requirements for programs providing need-tested assistance to low-income families and individuals. Need-tested programs provide benefits and services to individuals and families based on financial need (usually low income). This is in contrast to social insurance programs such as Social Security and Unemployment Insurance, which base their benefits on past work.

Work requirements for cash assistance for parents in needy families with children receiving public benefits have been part of policy debates since the 1960s. Those debates culminated in the 1996 welfare reform law (P.L. 104-193), which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant to replace the pre-1996 cash assistance program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Since the enactment of the 1996 law, extending work requirements to other need-tested programs has sometimes been raised in policy debates about need-tested programs. Legislation before the 115th Congress—the House-passed version of H.R. 2—would expand work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP). H.R. 5861, reported to the House from the Ways and Means Committee, would alter some of TANF’s rules regarding work. In addition, the Trump Administration is currently granting demonstration waivers for states to implement work requirements for certain recipients of Medicaid, and has proposed expanded work requirements for housing assistance programs.

Work requirements for recipients of government assistance seek to achieve a variety of policy goals. They can attempt to offset work disincentives in government assistance programs and promote a culture of work over dependency on government benefits. Work requirements can also reduce the assistance caseloads, leading to government savings. They can screen out those who decide that the benefit of receiving assistance is not worth the cost of complying with a work requirement. They can also be used to remove from the assistance programs those who do not comply with the societal norm of work.1 In general, the economic status of most individuals is tied to work—either current work, past work, or the work of another family member. Thus, requiring work can be seen as a means of improving the economic status of individuals and families, as it is the primary means of lifting them out of poverty.

What does the research evidence indicate about the impact of work requirements in meeting these policy goals? Most of the research that addresses this issue comes from a set of experiments, conducted prior to the 1996 welfare reform, on alternative approaches to the work and education provisions in TANF’s predecessor program, AFDC. This report summarizes the findings from the pre-1996 welfare-to-work experiments as well as the limits of applying those findings to the current policy debate around work requirements.


Suggested Citation
Falk, G. (2018). Research evidence on the impact of work requirements in need-tested programs (CRS Report R45317). Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service.