Yes, Obama Did Gut Welfare Reform

Earlier, I wrote about how the Obama administration gutted welfare reform. Now, the New York Times is claiming that the Obama administration did not gut welfare reform or open the door to waiver of its work requirements for welfare recipients. But as journalist Mickey Kaus notes, a passage in the Times’ own editorial helps confirm that the Obama administration has indeed opened the door to the evisceration of welfare reform’s work requirements. Welfare reform’s work requirements, unlike other provisions in the 1996 law, were specifically designed not to be waivable, but the Obama administration has now instead declared that they can be waived, thus violating the 1996 welfare-reform law. As the Times itself noted, the Obama administration’s expansion of waivers came in response to a request for waivers by the State of Nevada. Nevada expressly advocated a waiver of the requirement that welfare recipients work. For example, as the Times observed, Nevada suggested that “those families hardest to employ . . . be exempted from the work requirements for six months while officials worked with them to stabilize their households.”

As Kaus notes,

***–Here are the exact words in Nevada’s letter:

              TANF Performance Measures and Possible Waiver Opportunities

               Exempt the hardest-to-employ population for a period of time (i.e. six months) to allow time for their barriers to be addressed and their household circumstances stabilized; …

Note that “six months” isn’t an upper limit on the “exempt” period. Could be sixteen months. Note also that the NYT makes it sound as if Nevada might actually be requiring welfare recipients do something during this period–”while officials worked with them.” But the actual Nevada letter doesn’t say anything except that they need “time for their barriers to be addressed.”

More generally, Nevada proposes a broad, excuse-laden “progression” system in which all recipients with “employment barriers” are given “more time and assistance”–translation, more welfare with fewer obligations to work or train for work or look for work. What are “employment barriers”? They include lack of child care, transportation, drug addiction, “special needs such as clothing and tools,” and lack of “job seeking/retention skills.” Obesity can also be a “barrier.”

As the Heritage Foundation notes,

In the past, state bureaucrats have attempted to define activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and bed rest as “work.” These dodges were blocked by the federal work standards. Now that the Obama administration has abolished those standards, we can expect “work” in the TANF program to mean anything but work. The new welfare dictate issued by the Obama Administration clearly guts the law.

The Obama administration’s move baffled Kaus, who voted for Obama in 2008.  But perhaps it shouldn’t have baffled him, since it reflects Obama’s longstanding antipathy to reforms of the welfare system aimed at reducing dependency on welfare and requiring welfare recipients to work. “For example, in the years immediately after passage of the law, Barack Obama himself pledged to do all he could to undo it,” noted the Washington Examiner. As the Examiner‘s Chief Political Correspondent, Byron York, noted, on July 12, the Obama administration ‘released an official policy directive rewriting the welfare reform law of 1996’” to allow the “Department of Health and Human Services to waive the work requirement at the heart of welfare reform.”

Obama also gutted welfare reform in other ways, such as pushing through a stimulus package that rewarded states for promoting welfare dependency, giving state governors an incentive to water down any work requirements for welfare recipients. As Kaus noted in 2009,

Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley note that the anti-welfare-reform provisions in the stimulus bill . . . replicate the fiscal mechanics of the old welfare (AFDC) “entitlement,” but with a bigger incentive to welfare expansion:

For the first time since 1996, the federal government would begin paying states bonuses to increase their welfare caseloads. Indeed, the new welfare system created by the stimulus bills is actually worse than the old AFDC program because it rewards the states more heavily to increase their caseloads. Under the stimulus bills, the federal government will pay 80 percent of cost for each new family that a state enrolls in welfare; this matching rate is far higher than it was under AFDC.

The Obama administration claims that its July 12 HHS memo contains real limits on waivers of the work requirement for welfare. But those supposed limits are illusory. As Kaus points out, its provisions “weaken work requirements” and allow welfare reform to be gutted:

“For example, HHS said states ‘may want to consider’

‘Projects that test systematically extending the period in which vocational educational training or job search/readiness programs count toward participation rates, either generally or for particular subgroups, such as an extended training period for those pursuing a credential.’

“Translation: you’ll keep getting a welfare check for “training” or for “job readiness,” or for going to school for an “extended … period,”even though the law would otherwise say it’s time to get to work. This may be a good idea. It may be a bad idea. But it’s a weakening of the work requirement. (It’s also unfair to the poor suckers who just go to work without ever going on welfare–they don’t get subsidized while they’re ‘pursuing a credential.’)”

Nor, as Kaus has previously explained, did HHS’s deceptive claims made later in response to the furor over its memo gutting welfare reform do anything to protect work requirements from being waived, since its subsequent “20 percent” pledge uses a meaningless benchmark and is non-binding:

“After [conservative welfare experts] like Robert Rector publicized [the apparent gutting of welfare reform] and some GOP politicians kicked up a stink, Sebelius wrote a highly political damage-controlling letter in which seemingly from nowhere she produced an appealing ’20 percent’ promise. What Sebelius actually said is that governors must ‘commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance,’ not compared to what would happen under the existing program. Phrases like ‘compared to the states past performance’ don’t just get stuck into official letters to add poetic lilt. As Rector argues:

‘This sounds impressive, but a state can accomplish this merely by raising monthly “employment exits” (people exiting welfare to take a job) from, say, 5 percent to 6 percent of its caseload. That kind of change will occur automatically as the economy improves.’

“In other words, a state that doesn’t move many people from welfare to work can raise its pathetically low number of job placements by a fifth and get excused from meeting the welfare reform law’s much tougher standards. And one way to get credit for more ‘exits’ is to run lots of people through the system–including people who would normally bypass welfare entirely on their way to getting jobs. ‘Given the normal turnover rate in welfare programs, the easiest way to increase the number of individuals moving from “welfare to work” is to increase the number entering welfare in the first place,’ writes Rector. Bringing people into unnecessary contact with the welfare system is, of course, exactly what the ’96 law was designed to avoid.”