Would we really risk the catastrophe of a debt default because we think that some citizens who are receiving food stamps may not be working hard enough?
It appears that we would: One of the puzzling priorities for Republicans during negotiations over the debt ceiling increase was stricter work requirements for welfare recipients, a point that they won.
Under the new rules able-bodied adults without children who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program must work or participate in a training program for at least 80 hours per month until they reach the age of 54, an increase of five years over the previous cutoff. By some estimates, this rule change may push many thousands of Americans out of the food stamp program.
The moral aspect of this change is more interesting than its financial impact, which will be minimal. Because the new rules expand food stamp access for veterans, the homeless and others, imposing more stringent work requirements may actually be a financial wash.
In fact, research cited recently by New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie indicates that work requirements implemented a few years ago in Arkansas and Iowa had no impact on employment levels and actually cost more to administer than they produced. Their only real effect was to make it a little more difficult for hungry Americans to get something to eat.
So the appeal of work requirements arises from motives more complicated than economics.
Work requirements have moral implications. Even most tender-hearted liberals can see the theoretical logic and moral benefit of requiring adults who receive public assistance to work at least some if they are able.
And for many conservatives, welfare recipients are tempting targets for reasons having little to do with economics. Stricter work requirements are consistent with certain values that Republicans like to claim as their own. Work requirements capitalize on the fabled image of the able-bodied but indolent welfare queen or couch potato who dines on lobster and watches TV at home all day because he can make more money on welfare than he can working.
But like all stereotypes, this one is mostly false. Welfare fraud is like election fraud. Of course it exists and measures should be taken to prevent it. But vague suspicions of imaginary fraud do not justify overturning an election or putting unnecessary and ineffective obstacles between our less privileged fellow citizens and a life of reasonable dignity.
Every decent modern country has a social safety net. Taking care of others is a moral obligation, but if that isn't enough of a motivation, consider the legal obligation established in our Constitution: one of the clearly stated purposes of our nation is to "...promote the General Welfare."
But the Republican passion for work requirements has another layer to it. There is considerable political capital to be gained by inciting the resentment of middle class voters against lazy welfare recipients who--the voters are told--are enjoying a luxurious life while the rest of us have to get up and go to work.
Resentment inspires passion, and grievance is always ripe for exploitation. The trick is to keep the grievance pointed in the right direction.
Which probably explains why Republicans used the debt ceiling crisis to impose more stringent work requirements on the poor but insisted on taking away from the Internal Revenue Service $20 billion intended for better enforcement of our tax laws.
In other words, Republicans would much rather keep our attention and resentment focused on the supposed welfare cheats at the bottom than the actual tax cheats at the top.
In fact, Republicans would always rather have voters punch down than punch up.
Tribune Content Agency