The Obama Administration came out swinging against its critics on welfare reform yesterday, with Press Secretary Jay Carney saying the charge that the Administration gutted the successful 1996 reform’s work requirements is “categorically false” and “blatantly dishonest.” Even former President Bill Clinton, who signed the reform into law, came out parroting the Obama team’s talking points and saying the charge was “not true.”
The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector and Kiki Bradley first broke the story on July 12 that Obama’s Health and Human Services Department (HHS) had rewritten the Clinton-era reform to undo the work requirements, in a move that legal experts Todd Gaziano and Robert Alt determined was patently illegal.
The Administration’s new argument has two parts: denying the Obama Administration’s actions and claiming that Republican governors, including Mitt Romney, tried to do the same thing. In essence, “We did not do what you’re saying, but even if we did, some Republicans did it, too.” Both parts of this argument are easily debunked.
Obama Administration Claim #1: We Didn’t Gut Work Requirements
Ever since the 1996 law passed, Democratic leaders have attempted (unsuccessfully) to repeal welfare’s work standards, blocking reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) and attempting to weaken the requirements. Unable to eliminate “workfare” legislatively, the Obama HHS claimed authority to grant waivers that allow states to get around the work requirements.
Humorously, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius now asserts that the Administration abolished the TANF work requirements to increase work.
HHS now claims that states receiving a waiver must “commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s prior performance.” But given the normal turnover rate in welfare programs, the easiest way to increase the number of people moving from “welfare to work” is to increase the number entering welfare in the first place.
Bogus statistical ploys like these were the norm before the 1996 reform. The law curtailed use of sham measures of success and established meaningful standards: Participating in work activities meant actual work activities, not “bed rest” or “reading” or doing one hour of job search per month; reducing welfare dependence meant reducing caseloads. Now those standards are gone.
Obama’s HHS claims authority to overhaul every aspect of the TANF work provisions (contained in section 407), including “definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures and the calculation of participation rates.” In other words, the whole work program. Sebelius’s HHS bureaucracy declared the existing TANF law a blank slate on which it can design any policy it chooses.
Obama Administration Claim #2: Even If We Did, the Republicans Tried It, Too
Though the Obama Administration is claiming it is not trying to get around the work requirements, it is also claiming that a group of Republican governors tried to do the same thing in 2005. Clinton also said in his statement yesterday that “the recently announced waiver policy was originally requested” by Republican governors.
Heritage welfare expert Robert Rector addressed this claim back on July 19. As Rector explains:
But [the governors'] letter makes no mention at all of waiving work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In fact, the legislation promoted in the letter—the Personal Responsibility and Individual Development for Everyone (PRIDE) Act—actually would have toughened the federal work standards. It proposed raising the mandatory participation rates imposed on states from 50 percent to 70 percent of the adult TANF caseload and increasing the hours of required work activity.
The governors’ letter actually contradicts the Administration’s main argument: If the law has always permitted HHS to waive the work requirements, then why didn’t the governors just request waivers from then-President George W. Bush? Why would legislation be needed?
Two reasons: First, it has been clear for 15 years that the TANF law did not permit HHS to waive the work requirements. Second, the Republican governors were not seeking to waive the work requirements in the first place.
Obama’s Evolution from Welfare to Work and Back
President Obama had a convenient change of heart regarding welfare reform when it was time to run for President. In 1998, when he was an Illinois state senator, Obama said:
I was not a huge supporter of the federal plan that was signed in 1996. Having said that, I do think that there is a potential political opportunity that arose out of welfare reform. And that is to desegregate the welfare population—meaning the undeserving poor, black folks in cities, from the working poor—deserving, white, rural as well as suburban.
The same year, he reiterated that “the 1996 legislation I did not entirely agree with and probably would have voted against at the federal level.”
But in 2008, when he was running for President, Obama said he had changed his mind about welfare reform: “I was much more concerned 10 years ago when President Clinton initially signed the bill that this could have disastrous results….It had—it worked better than, I think, a lot of people anticipated. And, you know, one of the things that I am absolutely convinced of is that we have to work as a centerpiece of any social policy.”
One of his 2008 campaign ads touted “the Obama record: moved people from welfare to work” and promised that as President, he would “never forget the dignity that comes from work.”
This evolution is unsurprising, considering the vast majority of Americans favor requiring welfare recipients to work.
President Obama has finally accomplished what Democrats have been trying to do for years. He has even gotten President Clinton to turn his back on one of the signature achievements of his Administration to give him political cover—which Clinton was quick to do. In 1996, Clinton had to compromise and allow the tough work requirements to get the legislation passed.
Both Presidents have now revealed their true feelings about welfare—and there’s no denying it.