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July 18 2012

Obama Unilaterally Undermines 1990's Welfare Reforms

Hadley Heath

Bill Clinton is looking better all the time.  Remember when the Democratic President worked with Republicans and passed one of the best bipartisan accomplishments in our nation's history?  The year was 1996, and the issue was welfare reform.

Previously known as "Aid to Families with Dependent Children," welfare reform turned the program into "Temporary Aid to Needy Families."  The word "temporary" is important: It designated that poverty in America should be an unanticipated, nonpermanent hardship that can be resolved through hard work and opportunity.  And that poverty should not be a way of life, as it too often has become in some segments of society.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act went through several iterations in Congress until a deal was reached.  Ultimately the result was good policy: People on TANF would be required to work or actively seek work.  

The result? Welfare rolls shrunk by millions.  Employment swelled.  Child poverty decreased.  Single motherhood slowed.  A grand success by any measure.  And therefore, hugely popular.  If you ask most mainstream Americans how they feel about welfare, they agree we should have some security for the poor, who through no fault of their own, wind up in destitution.  But they usually qualify their feelings on the matter by saying that handouts to simply lazy people are a bad idea, and drive dependency.  The work requirement in TANF is helpful in dividing the sheep from the goats: It maintains a safety net, but should scare away able-bodied adults who are unwilling to work.

President Obama, though, doesn't lke the work requirement.  And recently, with the wave of his hand, has decided to do away with it.  

Poverty experts Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley reported to the National Review:

The Obama administration issued a dramatic new directive stating that the traditional TANF work requirements will be waived or overridden by a legal device called a section 1115 waiver authority under the Social Security law (42 U.S.C. 1315).

Section 1115 allows HHS to “waive compliance” with specified parts of various laws. But this is not an open-ended authority: All provisions of law that can be overridden under section 1115 must be listed in section 1115 itself.

The work provisions of the TANF program are contained in section 407 (entitled, appropriately, “mandatory work requirements”). Critically, this section, as well as most other TANF requirements, is deliberately not listed in section 1115; its provisions cannot be waived. Obviously, if the Congress had wanted HHS to be able to waive the TANF work requirements laid out in section 407, it would have listed that section as waivable under section 1115. It did not do that.

In the past, state bureaucrats have attempted to define activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and bed rest as “work.” Welfare reform instituted work standards to block these dodges. Now that the Obama administration has abolished those standards, we can expect “work” in the TANF program to mean anything but work.

The legally suspect nature of this "policy directive" is one issue.  It's a hallmark of many of Obama's executive orders.  

Another issue is the policy implications: President Obama may try to spin this as compassion for today's poor, who, like other Americans face difficulty finding work in a tough jobs market.  Well, welfare is anything but compassionate.  Especially a welfare state that encourages dependency.  America should not brag about how many people our welfare state has "helped," unless we mean to say how many people have successfully left welfare and moved on to lives of self-sufficiency.

Perhaps Obama can convince some left-leaning Americans that in spite of all the evidence, changing the work requirement is a good idea.  He may truly believe that the work requirements as defined in TANF are too much of a hardship for people.  He will most likely try to spin this as giving states more flexibility since, importantly, this policy change simply expands the federal government's authority to give states waivers to experiment with different ways to meet work requirements (perhaps, as Rector and Bradley suggest, by redefining "work".) Let's hope that no states take the bait and weaken the work requirements that (previous to this policy directive) were standard nationwide.

In the long run, the hardships of poverty are worsened by the decay of dignity that comes from a lifestyle of dependancy.  The best cure for poverty is more economic freedom and opportunity.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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