United States President Donald J. Trump makes remarks after signing the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill at the White House Friday, March 23, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Ron Sachs | CNP | TNS

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order directing federal agencies to strengthen existing work requirements and introduce new ones for low-income Americans receiving Medicaid, food stamps, public housing benefits and welfare as part of a broad overhaul of government assistance programs.

The order directs federal agencies to review all policies related to current work requirements as well as exemptions and waivers and report back to the White House with recommendations within 90 days.

“Welfare reform is necessary to prosperity and independence,” said Andrew Bremberg, assistant to the president and director of Trump’s domestic policy council.

Bremberg highlighted the success of the 1996 welfare changes, signed by President Bill Clinton, that required those receiving cash assistance to work, or look for work.

He said “common-sense reforms” are needed to help Americans “reclaim their independence” and to ensure that tax dollars are being spent on the truly needy.

The federal government spent more than $700 billion on assistance to low-income people in 2017.

The executive order is the strongest statement Trump has made about the country’s social safety net program since his February budget proposal to slash billions of dollars in food stamps, health insurance and federal housing subsidies.

Trump indicated at the time that he would push legislation to institute broad work requirements for families receiving housing vouchers, expanding on moves by some states to require recipients of Medicaid and food stamps to work.

Anti-poverty advocates criticized the moves. “For those who are able to work, they should work. But there shouldn’t be barriers for those who are in need when they can’t work,” said Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive of the NAACP.

Valerie Wilson, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, said a majority of those on assistance were already working — but that wages in many jobs remained too low for people to get by.

“Work requirements are inconsistent with the realities of poverty in America and are unlikely to provide any resolution,” she said. “The truth is that a majority of poor people who can work, do work — more than 60 percent.”

Wilson said low-wage workers are working more hours than they did nearly 40 years ago.

“The problem is that their jobs don’t pay enough,” she said. “People who are on public assistance and don’t work are not choosing between a six-figure salary or staying at home. Taking a low-paying job gets no one closer to economic stability.”

Conservatives praised the executive order, calling it “Welfare Reform 2.0.” While congressional action is needed to institute tougher work requirements, which Republicans are trying to accomplish for food stamp recipients through the farm bill, the executive branch could unilaterally issue rules and regulations that promote work.

“It’s a great start towards another wave of reform,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a free-market think tank based in Naples, Florida. “Work requirements have proven to be an effective tool to help people make it out of poverty. You can’t be on food stamps and be out of poverty by definition if you have no other earned income.”

Archambault said the White House could standardize work requirements and eligibility rules across programs.

The White House pointed to states such as Kansas and Maine that have enacted “common-sense work requirements” that have resulted in “positive outcomes.” In Kansas, work requirements for adults without children resulted in case loads dropping by 75 percent, the White House said.

Senior White House officials during a briefing Tuesday evening disagreed with the premise that many of those receiving government assistance already work. They said states with welfare policies that emphasize work have helped drive the poorest Americans into jobs. But states don’t always promote or enforce work requirements.

“Unfortunately, many of the programs designed to help families have instead delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds,” the executive order said. “The welfare system still traps many recipients, especially children, in poverty and is in need of further reform and modernization in order to increase self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility.”

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.