The Marriage Penalty: A Barrier to Relational Support and Better Opportunities for the Poor

The Marriage Penalty: A Barrier to Relational Support and Better Opportunities for the Poor

The marriage penalty is a government tax policy that increases the tax burden on low-income households trying to pursue better lives and economic mobility through marriage.

The Marriage Penalty: A Barrier to Relational Support and Better Opportunities for the Poor

Key Points

  • A lack of connection and supportive relationships, especially at home, is a driving factor of long-term poverty. Marriage is one type of relationship that research has shown to be a building block of stable lives and communities.

  • Communities in Georgia and beyond are struggling with a barrier called the marriage penalty—a government tax policy that forces couples to pay more in taxes as a result of increasing household income through marriage. 

  • The marriage penalty tax discourages those in poverty from improving their financial situation and forming strong support systems at home.

Strong relationships are a cornerstone of vibrant communities. Of the many types of relationships in day-to-day life, research shows that marriage is one of the most important for empowering individuals, regardless of race or circumstance, to avoid long-term poverty and find stability and opportunity. 

But communities in Georgia and beyond are struggling to reap the benefits of marriage—and a big reason is a government tax policy called the marriage penalty.  

Why does marriage matter for those in poverty?

We celebrate marriage because it provides people with relational connection and support. When we think about helping someone escape or avoid long-term poverty, we might assume that a person’s economic needs are most important to address. But that would be missing a critical piece of the puzzle. 

A lack of connection and supportive relationships, especially at home, is a driving factor of long-term poverty. 

Those in poverty often need this relationship and support system to a greater level, which is why we at GCO emphasize the benefits marriage offers for individuals, children, and communities. Higher marriage rates tend to go hand-in-hand less crime, better education outcomes, less child poverty, and more upward mobility

Of course, not every person will get married, but the impact that close, healthy relationships have on the stability of lives and communities cannot be understated.

The impact that close, healthy relationships have on the stability of lives and communities cannot be understated. In fact, it’s one of the biggest factors in helping people overcome long-term poverty.

The impact that close, healthy relationships have on the stability of lives and communities cannot be understated. In fact, it’s one of the biggest factors in helping people overcome long-term poverty.

Understanding the marriage penalty tax

A marriage penalty occurs when a couple faces higher taxes as a result of marrying and filing jointly. Higher taxes are linked to higher income, so it might seem like the marriage penalty is simply an inconvenience for households with high enough earnings to afford it. 

But the marriage penalty poses a significant problem for low-income households, as well. It creates a financial risk if one or both spouses are receiving government benefits and getting married would increase household income. That increase can trigger a sudden loss in benefits—even if households aren’t fully earning enough to offset the loss. This scenario holds particularly true for couples who earn a modest income—those in the working class or lower middle class earning around $28,000 to $55,000 a year.

Marriage penalties apply at the federal tax level, but there are 15 states that also have marriage penalties built into their state income tax brackets. Georgia is one of them.

Georgia is one of 15 states that have a marriage penalty built into the state income tax structure.

Marriage penalties stifle financial independence

The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” has increased when it comes to marriage. While the wealthy and upper middle class continue to marry at high rates, marriage is far less common among the poor, working class, and lower middle class.

According to data from the 2015 American Community Survey, 56% of adults between the ages of 18 and 55 are married who fall into the upper middle class. That contrasts with 39% of those in the working class and just 26% of those who are poor.

There are many reasons why marriage rates have declined for these groups, but in the realm of government policy, the marriage penalty is one of the most discouraging factors. 

For example, a single mom with a few kids would need to find a spouse who earns a significantly higher salary than her in order to overcome the loss of benefits if they chose to get married. In some cases, the penalty is so extreme that she would need to marry someone earning more than $40 per hour—or more than $80,000 annually if full time—to recover from the loss in safety-net benefits like food stamps, refundable tax credits, and medical assistance.

Through a focus group organized by GCO and the Institute for Family Studies, we met Tiana, who experienced this situation firsthand. “I chose not to marry,” she told us. “For one, I get a lot of assistance. I have a disabled child. So being if I did marry or put any other type of income in, I would not qualify for anything.”

More than one-in-10 unmarried Americans whose income falls below the median reported they were not married for fear of losing “access to government benefits,” according to a recent IFS/Wheatley Institution survey. The research indicates that penalties can amount to between 10% and 30% of household income for many families in the poor and working-class income brackets.

Marriage penalties discourage strong support systems at home

The bottom line is that the marriage penalty harms many of the poor who are working and attempting to make a better life for themselves and their families. It does so by discouraging the very thing we know impacts poverty the most—family and relationship formation. 

Fewer marriages is bad news for children: Social science research shows, time and again, that children do best in a stable, married two-parent household.

Married households have the lowest poverty rate of any household configuration at just 6.3% in 2020. Meanwhile, one-in-three children live in a single-parent household today, 80% of those households being headed by a single mom. And the unfortunate reality is that single-mom households are the most likely to be in poverty of any family structure in the U.S.—a staggering 34% in 2020, accounting for over 5.1 million children in poverty.

Solutions to eliminate the marriage penalty tax

The ultimate solution to eliminate marriage penalties is federal action to reform how government benefits are structured. However, states can take the lead as they streamline eligibility standards and form individual action plans.

That’s why GCO is hard at work at in Georgia and across the country to educate lawmakers on the perils of benefits cliffs and possible fixes. 

At the end of the day, however, government reforms are only part of the solution. The institutions of marriage and family are suffering not only from government obstacles, but also societal challenges. Civil society organizations—such as churches, nonprofits, and schools—are critical avenues for local support and examples of how to cultivate healthy family relationships. While this is not something that government programs can accomplish, classes and curriculum may be incorporated into case management.

Americans deserve a strong safety net that serves as a bridge out of poverty. But no government program or policy should be a barrier to the relationships needed in the places where lives are formed and transformed— in homes and communities.

2024: A Year of Unique Opportunities to Change Lives and Help Our Neighbors

2024: A Year of Unique Opportunities to Change Lives and Help Our Neighbors

Safety-net reform discussion in progress Georgia Promise Scholarship advocates Raising Highly Capable Kids program session Collaborative community safety planning Economic empowerment through BETTER WORK Educational opportunity supporters in action Community leaders addressing employment barriers Policy reform meeting on public safety Family stability and well-being empowerment Networking for local job opportunities

2024: A Year of Unique Opportunities to Change Lives and Help Our Neighbors

Key Points

  • Building off our success in 2023, the new year presents unique opportunities to build better lives for our neighbors through the power of work, education, family, and safer communities.

  • Our goal is for 2024 to be the year that safety-net reform takes hold in states across the country, while educational freedom becomes a reality at home here in Georgia as Promise Scholarships finally become a reality.
  • We hope this year will also bring safer communities in big and small cities alike through key public safety reforms.

One word that often comes to mind at the beginning of a new year is “hope.” As 2024 dawns, the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) is working hard to help everyone — especially the poor and disadvantaged — experience the wonder of hope by envisioning a better future for themselves and their loved ones. They can live better. They can become better.

Time and time again, government has proven that it can’t help people escape systemic, generational poverty. While the safety net is important, viewing it as a way of life saps people of their humanity and unfairly limits their potential. The poor deserve to know that poverty is escapable, not just survivable. And they deserve a helping hand to escape.

These solutions come from homes, neighborhoods, and local communities. This is where aspirations and dreams are born. No handout can substitute for this.

With this vision in mind, we will be dedicating 2024 to making positive changes in a few key areas that greatly affect the quality and trajectory of life for those who are most vulnerable. We built significant momentum last year on a range of issues, and that’s setting the stage for even bigger impact this year.

Here’s some of what’s on tap for us in the new year.

Safety-net reform will yield new opportunities

We’re taking on the safety-net system by advancing reforms in Congress, Georgia, and states across the country to create a more humane system that rewards work and creates a bridge to self-sufficiency.

We should look to Utah as an example of a state in the nation that is leading the way on safety-net reforms. The Beehive State’s One Door policy has integrated human services with workforce services and provides citizens with a single program to work through. Welfare becomes work support, and people have a clear path to get the help they need while receiving education, training, and other support to find employment.

This year, working with our Alliance for Opportunity partnership as a platform, we are advancing federal legislation to allow all states to adopt the One Door model—something that federal law currently prohibits. In Georgia, we are working with state policymakers to create a One Door task force so that our state is prepared to implement more holistic safety-net policies, especially when federal law is no longer a barrier. 

On a similar front, we are working to educate lawmakers and the public on the problem of benefits cliffs. Put simply, benefits cliffs are when an individual, family, or household loses more in net income and benefits from governmental assistance programs than it gains from additional earnings. This net loss is a perverse incentive that undermines the natural desire to earn more income. Thanks to GCO’s original research, we are crafting program-specific solutions to reduce benefits cliffs in food stamps/SNAP and childcare assistance. 

These solutions will build off the momentum created in states like Missouri, which became the first last year to address public assistance provisions, breaking ground in reforming safety-net benefits.

Safety-net programs have a role in helping the most vulnerable in our society. Ultimately, reforms are not about making government more efficient. They are about ensuring safety-net progams serve as a bridge, not a barrier, to better opportunities and futures.


Expanding educational opportunity will benefit all students

Could 2024 be the year that—finally—education opportunity is extended to all of Georgia’s students, not just a privileged few?

Our hope is the answer is yes. We’re fighting to give every child in Georgia access to a quality education as the Georgia Promise Scholarship bill comes back for a final vote in the recently convened 2024 legislative session. Promise Scholarships would give parents $6,500 per student per year to find the right education option for their kids. The bill cleared the state Senate in 2023 but stalled in the House. 

Promise Scholarships are the cornerstone of our education agenda in 2024, but they are not the only priority. We are also encouraging lawmakers to expand the ceiling on the tax-credit scholarship, to free up families to transfer students between public schools within districts and in separate districts entirely, and make key improvements to charter school laws.

It’s well past time Georgia caught up with the rapidly growing list of other forward-thinking states that are expanding educational opportunity to all.


Support for parents will strengthen families

This year is an exciting phase for our Raising Highly Capable Kids (RHCK) program, which we launched in 2023 to give communities a better resource for nurturing family stability and well-being.   

RHCK is a 13-week evidence-based parenting program designed to build stronger families by empowering parents with the confidence, tools, and skills they need to raise healthy, caring, and responsible children.

A driving factor of long-term poverty is a lack of connection and supportive relationships, especially at home. That’s why we are prioritizing RHCK. At its heart is a curriculum that teaches the building blocks of healthy child development. In 2024, we’re working with partners and schools to expand RHCK. We believe the program will be a powerful way to give parents, caregivers, and educators tools and support to improve kids’ academic achievement, relationships, and overall success in life.

In 2024, the Georgia Center for Opportunity spearheads transformative initiatives, ranging from safety-net reforms and educational advancements to family support and community safety, all geared towards breaking the cycle of poverty and fostering a brighter, more empowered future for individuals and families.

In 2024, the Georgia Center for Opportunity spearheads transformative initiatives, ranging from safety-net reforms and educational advancements to family support and community safety, all geared towards breaking the cycle of poverty and fostering a brighter, more empowered future for individuals and families.

Key reforms will lead to safer communities

Community violence is another barrier to economic opportunity and healthy communities. Individuals and families can only truly thrive when neighborhoods and streets are safe. 

Through community collaborations with law enforcement, policymakers, and community leaders, we’ll help Georgia cities like Atlanta and Columbus reverse the tide of rising violence that has been damaging the family bonds, work opportunities, and educational pathways needed to break the cycle of poverty.

In Columbus, the Columbus Empowerment Network is leading to crime reductions, and we expect more local policy reforms to be adopted in 2024. While much of the focus on increasing crime rates centers on large metro areas, smaller cities like Columbus are still important and have seen concerning upticks in crime.

Our team is also active in moving forward policy in other states, including California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Washington State, and Kentucky. In Louisville, for example, our work has helped shape an omnibus crime solution bill, which is expected to pass their state House this year. Louisville is important as a national example because it’s one of the most challenging public safety environments in the country, and solutions that work in this city have a good probability of working elsewhere—including Georgia. 


Breaking down employment barriers will transform generations

For those who struggle in poverty, an upwardly mobile job is often the first and best step toward self-sufficiency. That’s why we will continue to work through our BETTER WORK initiative in Gwinnett County and Columbus to build our local support systems to empower men and women to find work. We’ll also cultivate an environment of community safety where business and job opportunities abound.

In Columbus, a new focus for 2024 will be on partnering with local leaders and law enforcement to keep crime from driving away businesses and job opportunities. Meanwhile in Gwinnett, we’re laser focused on building out our network of employer partners, nonprofits, schools, and other community organizations to provide a bridge to a better life for the disadvantaged. And overall, we will continue our partnership with Jobs for Life as well as our mentor program.

The cost of Christmas is up, especially for the poor

The cost of Christmas is up, especially for the poor

The cost of gifts, meals, and trips to see family and friends have gone up, inflation, debt, low-income

The cost of Christmas is up, especially for the poor

Key Points

  • The blog underscores the significant impact of inflation on Christmas expenses, encompassing gifts, meals, and travel, affecting Americans, particularly those from lower economic classes, hindering their enjoyment of the holiday’s relational aspects.
  • Emphasizing a recent inflation surge due to pandemic-related factors, the post characterizes it as an “inflation tax” disproportionately affecting the poorest Americans, creating challenges in accessing opportunities crucial for a meaningful life.
  • Supported by statistical evidence, the blog reveals the financial hardships caused by inflation, with the average American household spending $11,434 more annually since January 2021, particularly impacting the poor who face significant debt obstacles. 

This year, inflation is threatening to put a dent in Christmas festivities. The cost of gifts, meals, and trips to see family and friends have gone up, to name a few common items. And Americans are noticing.

The pinch is particularly painful for those from the lower classes. Putting aside the greater cost of material items, a more expensive holiday means that those who are struggling will have a more challenging time enjoying the relational aspects of the holiday, including being with family while celebrating treasured traditions and connecting around meals.

What’s clear from these data points is that America’s recent burst of high inflation—which soared to a 40-year high in the aftermath of pandemic-related shutdowns, supply chain disruptions, and government stimulus overspending—has driven up the cost of goods and services and inflicted an “inflation tax” that disproportionately hits the poorest Americans the hardest.

At the Georgia Center for Opportunity, our mission is built around promoting human flourishing—especially for those on the margins. The high cost of Christmas this year matters because it reflects the reality that high inflation reduces people’s ability to access the opportunities that shape a meaningful life.


By the numbers: Inflation’s effect on household budgets

Just how bad is it this year? Nationally, a recent report found that the average American household now spends $11,434 more annually to maintain the same standard of living they enjoyed in January 2021. Worse, they’re using credit cards to finance everyday purchases—running up debt and leaving very little extra for the holidays. 

For the poor, debt can become an insurmountable obstacle to moving up the economic ladder. Low-income households spend around 26% of their income each month on debt, compared to around 4% for wealthy households (even though wealthy households carry far more debt on average).

 On a personal level, this decreased purchasing power means that more families teetering on the economic edge are struggling to put food on the table during the normal year—let alone for special meals around the holidays. A recent survey found that 50% of Americans say Santa will be less generous this Christmas due to inflation—and that one in three won’t be getting presents this year.

Even for those who plan to spend money this holiday season, 28% say it will be less than last year. And nearly 20% will apply for new credit cards to finance their purchases—despite the fact that nearly 25% still carry holiday debt from last year.

So how expensive are traditional items that Americans associate with the holidays in 2023? PNC Bank’s Christmas Price Index (CPI) shows the overall cost for Christmas festivities has gone up nearly 20% since 2021. For example, Christmas breakfast classics like bacon and eggs are up 24% and 41%, respectively, since 2021, while Christmas dinner pork chops are up 20%.

Gas prices are up 55% over the same time period, making transportation to and from work even more difficult for the poor. Meanwhile, the price to buy a used car has jumped by 22%.

Even home energy costs have risen so much that some families must decide between heating their homes and buying presents. Since September 2021, the cost to heat homes and keep lights on has risen 20% for electricity and 18% for gas.

It is a complex problem caused by a myriad of systems and choices but the implications are substantial. Inflation is having a catastrophic impact on those living in poverty. We discuss what is causing it and what we must do to address it.

It is a complex problem caused by a myriad of systems and choices but the implications are substantial. Inflation is having a catastrophic impact on those living in poverty. We discuss what is causing it and what we must do to address it.

Finding joy in the season

A recent Financial Times–Michigan Ross poll found that 82% of Americans say that price increases are their biggest source of financial stress. So even as the jobless rate improves and inflation cools, many consumers simply aren’t feeling it. And this translates into pessimism about the economy as we move into the 2023 holiday shopping season.

It doesn’t have to be that way. During the holiday season, the GCO message of giving hope and opportunity to those who most need it couldn’t be more needed. It’s painful to realize how much many of our neighbors are struggling with the high cost of inflation. But it’s a great invitation for communities to come together and offer support in ways the government can’t.

We can make the biggest difference by starting small and close to home.

How a Government Shutdown Actually Hurts the Poor

How a Government Shutdown Actually Hurts the Poor

Best practices for reducing crime can empower California to build safer communities through policy.

How a Government Shutdown Actually Hurts the Poor

Key Points

  • Government shutdowns occur when Congress doesn’t pass a set of bills that give federal agencies and services the approval and funding necessary to operate. 
  • Government shutdowns and political wrangling distract from the real issues facing the poor and delay much-needed safety net reforms that would help people move out of government dependency.
  • There are bipartisan solutions Congress can act on to better serve low-income and marginalized communities.

Government shutdowns occur when Congress doesn’t pass a set of bills that give federal agencies and services the necessary funding to operate. Without this approval, agencies must pause all non-essential activity until Congress takes action. Threats of government shutdowns often go hand-in-hand with political conflicts among federal leaders. When this dynamic takes hold in D.C., government shutdowns become, at best, a distraction from the real issues facing the poor and, at worst, a roadblock to efforts to move people out of government dependency.

What Happens During a Government Shutdown?

During a government shutdown, several disruptions happen:  

  • Many federal employees are temporarily out of a job. They are instructed not to show up to work and aren’t paid during the shutdown window, though they typically receive back-pay once a shutdown ends.
  • Essential government employees, such as military, air traffic control, and TSA, are expected to keep working without pay. 
  • Americans may experience delays in government-administered processes, such as permits and passports.
  • Benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and most other need-based programs still go out, but shutdowns often lead to furloughs or reduced staffing levels in federal agencies responsible for administering these programs. As a result, beneficiaries may experience longer processing times for applications, appeals, and inquiries. 
  • Nutrition programs, including SNAP and WIC, are the most at-risk from a government shutdown, with WIC being immediately impacted upon a shutdown (though benefits may still continue for some days) and SNAP having about a month of funding available after a shutdown.

Government Shutdowns and Safety Net Programs 

For many Americans who currently need assistance from programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and Social Security, a government shutdown can be a fearful prospect. The worry of losing essential benefits and facing greater financial hardship can take a significant toll on individuals and families in low-income households and communities. 

The good news for these Americans is that need-based services are typically the last area to be affected and the first to receive any additional approved funding, and government shutdowns would have to go on for a long time—longer than the current record of 34 days—before beneficiaries notice any change in financial assistance. The biggest hurdle is that agencies may be slower to respond to applications, inquiries, and other administrative needs. 

Government Shutdowns Prolong the Suffering of Low-Income, Marginalized Communities

Government shutdowns can generate consequences and inconveniences across the country, but it’s important to recognize that not everyone bears the brunt of a government shutdown equally. 

A government shutdown may not cut off food stamps, social security, or other safety net benefits immediately. However, low-income and vulnerable communities still suffer because their struggles get lost in the midst of political conflicts. The impending shutdown is brewing because political wrangling and polarization continue to distract federal leaders from addressing real problems and broken safety net systems.

There Are Solutions Congress Can Act On to Create Better Pathways Out of Poverty

To better serve people living on the margins, federal lawmakers must stop avoiding the reality that the design of our safety net is a barrier, not a bridge, to opportunity. 

In the current system, recipients are forced to navigate multiple, disconnected programs, eligibility requirements, and caseworkers—a maze that becomes a trap for welfare dependence instead of a secure path out of poverty. Government shutdowns can certainly add to this tediousness and complexity, but there’s a bigger question looming in the background: How do we design our safety net system so that it  actually helps Americans become more self-sufficient and regain hope and dignity along the way? 

There are solutions Congress can implement.

Expanding the One Door Model to Bridge Welfare and Work 

The One Door Model does away with disconnected programs and integrates human services with work support so that beneficiaries who are capable of working have a clear, supportive, and accessible path to personal well-being and meaningful jobs.

This reform improves safety net services by: 

  • Streamlining programs and making the system easier for recipients to navigate.
  • Building a bridge to work, training, and education to promote self-sufficiency over dependency. 
  • Providing cost savings for federal and state budgets.


One Door To Opportunity

The purpose and direction of our safety net programs are to help and not hinder opportunity. We must build a system that provides one door to access opportunities leading to thriving. This is a dramatic change in how we deliver help to those in need.

One Door To Opportunity

The purpose and direction of our safety net programs are to help and not hinder opportunity. We must build a system that provides one door to access opportunities leading to thriving. This is a dramatic change in how we deliver help to those in need.

The first and only state to adopt this approach is Utah, where it has changed the lives of thousands—everyone from single mothers to ex-offenders seeking a fresh start. The One Door Model is a fix all states could implement…if Congress would allow them. Under the current federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), states are blocked from adopting the reform. Congress could change this simply by revising WIOA. 

Removing the Barrier of Benefits Cliffs 

All safety net programs suffer from a benefits cliffs problem. A benefits cliff is when an individual, family, or household loses more in benefits from government assistance programs than it gains from additional earned income.

When a person experiences a benefits cliff, they are thrust into serious difficulties: loss of housing, going hungry, fearing that their children will be taken by Child Protective Services, and more. While most people don’t want to depend on government assistance long-term, a higher wage often doesn’t offset the vulnerabilities created by a sudden, steep loss of benefits.

The One Door Model, work requirements, and other welfare-to-work solutions can encourage more people toward employment and independence, but this approach isn’t a full solution. As long as benefits cliffs exist in the safety net, people will face a significant barrier that incentivizes them to choose government dependency. Reforms are needed at both the federal and state levels to empower more households to overcome benefits cliffs through steady work and typical pay raises so that they can achieve self-sufficiency more quickly and securely. 

Knowing that practical, life-changing solutions are out there, we can look at government shutdown debates in a different light and ask: What are the political games in DC costing communities? For millions of Americans, the tragic answer is that it’s costing them the chance  for a more fulfilled, self-sufficient life as long as federal leaders devote energy to political distractions instead of bipartisan opportunities to fix our broken safety net system. 

Storm clouds on the horizon for the economy

Storm clouds on the horizon for the economy

Media statement, in the news, Georgia news, ga news

Storm clouds on the horizon for the economy

The latest Consumer Price Index released today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in the past month, the Federal Reserve successfully achieved its inflation target by meeting a 2% increase in prices on a seasonally adjusted monthly basis. This signifies a step towards maintaining economic stability and balance. But there are still storm clouds on the horizon.

The Georgia Center for Opportunity’s (GCO) take: “While this is positive news, a concerning trend has emerged since the onset of the pandemic,” said Erik Randolph, GCO’s director of research. “Overall, goods cost 18.2% more today than they did before the start of the pandemic due to rampant inflation. Simply put, everyday essentials are far less affordable in 2023 than they were three or four years ago. That hits the impoverished and low-income Americans the hardest. At the federal level, there appears to be a lack of substantive discussion regarding measures to restore the diminished purchasing power of consumers. That is concerning.”

    Are Work Requirements Good or Bad?

    Are Work Requirements Good or Bad?

    Man sitting with his hands folded

    Are Work Requirements Good or Bad?

    Key Points

    • The arguments around work requirements ignore the purpose of how our safety net services should work.
    • The public, in general, agree with the argument for work requirements because they see the system as a temporary solution.
    • We must reform the system so that we move people into opportunity and thriving.

    As the federal government debates the debt ceiling and attempts to bring spending under control, one recurring topic is work requirements for adults on government benefits and safety net services. The argument is that implementing work requirements will encourage more people to leave welfare programs, which in turn would decrease spending on one of the biggest expenses in the federal budget.

    However, the debate about work requirements should not, in my opinion, be connected to fiscal accountability. Instead, it should be linked to the central purpose of these services and the people needing them.


    A look at work requirements

    To understand these challenges we need to look at the differing opinions on work requirements. On one side you hear the argument that not requiring work for benefits like SNAP and Medicaid is a disincentive to work for those on benefits. In other words, people are staying on benefits longer than necessary because there is no benefit to getting off, and in many cases, it is more costly to get off.

    On the other side, the argument requiring work is simply a way to save money which ultimately hurts the poor. The argument is people in need of food support and healthcare will not be able to work and thus will be forced off of services without work.

    Both of these arguments ignore the full experience of those on safety net services. Therefore, I want to challenge us to set aside political talking points and have a real discussion on the issue. These arguments are fraught with finger-pointing and people assigning motivations to each other. The discussion around work requirements is important because it challenges us to ask, “What is the purpose of our welfare system?”


    With The Alliance for Opportunity, we are crafting policies that will create a clear path to get off safety net services and into opportunity in Georgia.

    With The Alliance for Opportunity, we are crafting policies that will create a clear path to get off safety net services and into opportunity in Georgia.

    Work requirements aren’t a bad idea

    At the Georgia Center for Opportunity, we generally agree with the idea of work requirements, but not for the reasons political pundits throw around. We are not trying to “weed out bad actors” or trying to reduce government expenditures. Those outcomes may come to pass but they cannot and should not be the intent of such measures. 

    While there is a politicized debate currently raging, the idea of requiring work to continue to receive benefits is not new. FDR’s New Deal, the framework for our current safety net system, pushed for a system that helped those unable to work like children or disabled individuals. The expansion of such a system to cover the unemployed came later in the process and was designed to be a stopgap between employment.

    As the system expanded even further, it became apparent the support should include systems to get people back into work—this led to job training and education programs.

    That is where we are today and ultimately how we should be looking at the safety net system for those able to work. The system must be designed to ask, “How can we help you get back on your feet and be self-sustainable?” Not because you are only valuable if you work, but because you are a valuable member of society. This view of membership is probably why work requirements are very popular among the US population. We value and understand the importance of work.

    The research on the value of work is expansive. It leads to positive outcomes for families, improved personal mental health, and deeper community value. It is what we should want for people. It is what we should build our services to provide people, not a paycheck but an opportunity.

    The arguments against work requirements 

    The issue becomes more complex when you recognize the valid arguments against work requirements. One of these is that work requirements don’t increase work rates—they simply cut people off of needed services

    The argument is that these requirements add another stress level to people just trying to survive. This creates yet another hurdle for those already struggling to navigate a complex process. The result is people find a different means to survive or they simply give up. Obviously, no one wants to add to people’s burdens.

    Rather than arguing against work requirements, these challenges highlight the flaws in our current system. The system is poorly designed and does not lead to the outcomes we want for people.

    Work requirements are a good policy in a bad system

    Policymakers are notoriously inept when it comes to policy reforms. Half-measures have resulted in a system that is not focused on outcomes. If the system were structured to reduce complexity and alleviate stress for those seeking job support, then a work requirement could be the positive encouragement it should be.

    This is one reason we are working with other state think tanks on a One Door Model that would transform our safety net services and create a clear, supportive, and accessible path to work.

    These types of policies are critical to ensure that we are helping those in need. They are also critical to ensure that we deliver dignity and hope as an outcome. 

    About The Author

    Corey Burres

    VP of Communication and Marketing

    Corey Burres is the director the award-winning education documentary Flunked. He served as a consultant with many state think tanks around the country to help them utilize marketing and story telling to improve public policy. He is active in the foster care community and working to help build a better community around him.