Last Thursday, in another assault on the democratic process that has become standard operating procedure for the Obama administration, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a policy directive that purports to grant states more “flexibility” in implementing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In reality, the policy change eviscerates the federal works requirements that were the essential ingredient of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act signed into law by president Bill Clinton in 1996 after painstaking, bipartisan efforts achieved through the democratic process.
“President Obama just tore up a basic foundation of the welfare contract,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) said in a statement. Jordan also characterized the move as a “blatant violation of the law.” What Jordan is referring to is a claim by the administration that the traditional TANF work requirements can be waived or overridden by a legal device called the section 1115 waiver authority under the Social Security law. “Therefore, HHS is issuing this information memorandum to notify states of the Secretary’s willingness to exercise her waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families,” the directive states.
Yet the “mandatory work requirements” in TANF are not listed under section 1115. They are contained in section 407 of the law, precisely because Congress wanted to shield them from HHS bureaucrats. One section of the law is waivable under section 1115. That is section 402, which requires states to notify the HHS about how they will comply with the other sections of the TANF. As the Heritage Foundation points out, waivers granted under section 402 only apply to the reporting requirements, not the essential parameters of the requirements themselves. The administration’s sleight-of-hand? Since work requirements of section 407 are mentioned in section 402, all them can be re-written at will by HHS and/or state bureaucrats.
The directive asserts that alternative plans could “combine learning and work” to fulfill the work requirement, or let “vocational educational training or job search /readiness programs” count as well. In the past, some states have attempted to claim that activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and getting bed rest constitute “work.” Such attempts were shot down by the law as it was written. Under the guise of giving states more flexibility, the Obama administration has taken what Bill Clinton himself described in a 2006 New York Times editorial as “welfare legislation shifting the emphasis from dependence to empowerment” and turned it on its ear.
“On Aug. 22, 1996, after vetoing two earlier versions, I signed welfare reform into law,” Clinton wrote. “At the time, I was widely criticized by liberals who thought the work requirements too harsh and conservatives who thought the work incentives too generous. Three members of my administration ultimately resigned in protest. Thankfully, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans voted for the bill because they thought we shouldn’t be satisfied with a system that had led to intergenerational dependency.”
By any reasonable measure, the law was a smashing success. In 1994, there were 5.1 million families on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFCDC), the program that preceded TANF. Ten years later, the number had shrunk to 2 million, representing a 60 percent decline. The poverty rate for single women with children fell from 42 percent in 1996, to 34 percent in 2002, marking the first time the number had ever declined below 40 percent. Hunger among children, especially black children, along with the number of welfare caseloads, was cut in half by 2003. As Bill Clinton notes, as a result of the Welfare to Work Partnership, “which my administration started to speed the transition to employment, more than 20,000 businesses hired 1.1 million former welfare recipients. Welfare reform has proved a great success, and I am grateful to the Democrats and Republicans who had the courage to work together to take bold action.”
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