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Deborah Schlick ("Work requirements don't work, do harm," Opinion Exchange, June 2) is correct: Work requirements in welfare programs are indeed harmful. Expanding work requirements in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, aka food stamps, to include adults between 50 and 54 years of age, as Congress's recent debt ceiling agreement does, will result in benefit loss for some current recipients. This isn't just about work requirements for food stamps, though. They're in other poverty programs like cash welfare. And Republicans want to add them even to medical assistance.

When work requirements are added, it isn't just people who aren't working who lose benefits. People who aren't aware of the requirement, or who don't correctly substantiate that they're either working or exempt lose them, too. It's part of the "hassle factor" that welfare programs for the poor often employ to keep people off the rolls, even though they qualify for benefits.

Schlick makes some good arguments, but she doesn't address some of the biggest problems.

First, what we typically consider "welfare" is underinclusive. We all benefit from government welfare, no matter how rich or poor we are. If you get a tax break for being head of household, having dependent children, or paying mortgage interest on your home, then you're getting welfare. Do you or your children have a Pell Grant for college? You're getting welfare. When corporations get public subsidies or a local tax break for locating their operations in a specific area, they're getting welfare.

When the government subsidizes an activity, it's demonstrating a policy preference by rewarding a person or entity for doing something that it wants to sponsor. This is true whether it's a tax subsidy (like the one for having children), a grant (like the one for college expenses) or a benefit (like food stamps).

So how is needing food stamps or cash welfare like getting money for having a child or going to college? All are instances of the government subsidizing desired activities. But in the case of food stamps and cash welfare — as well as unemployment benefits, medical assistance, housing subsidies and so on — the government isn't encouraging a person's behavior. It's encouraging the behavior of businesses that employ low-income workers.

The government supports businesses like Walmart and McDonald's that pay less than a living wage to low-skilled but necessary employees by subsidizing those employees' basic living requirements and supporting them when they lose their job or can't work. We, in turn, benefit from the businesses' cheap products and services.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 76 million Americans — more than half of all workers — earn an hourly wage. Of those, nearly 52 million earned less than $15 an hour, according to Oxfam America. Women, Black people and single parents disproportionately belong to this latter group. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that, in nearly half of low-wage families with at least one full-time worker, at least one member was enrolled in one or more welfare programs. This is because fewer than 40% of them had access to health insurance through their job. Over a quarter used food stamps. More than 70% spent more than 30% of their income on housing, putting them at risk of foreclosure, eviction or homelessness.

People who work 40 or more hours per week but can't make basic ends meet are likely to think that the deck is stacked against them. You can't blame them for that, because it is.

For the government to penalize low-income Americans for having low-paid and often unstable jobs by making it harder for them to get public benefits when the government itself encourages businesses to pay insufficient wages is unwarranted and unethical. As for those who argue that work requirements are needed because some people get welfare who aren't working, I would respond: Using work requirements to remove these individuals from the rolls is like fishing with dynamite. The destruction wreaked in the process is far too great to justify the means.

We're all supposed to benefit from our social contract. Penalizing people who play by the rules yet who can't get ahead because of how we've set up the system isn't fair. Work requirements don't deserve our support.

Laura Hermer is a professor of law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.