Ending Welfare As We Know It

Obama once again attempts to grow the culture of dependency through bureaucratic tyranny.

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."

Clinton's credit for these reforms, of course, is somewhat disingenuous. A Republican landslide in the 1994 election gave them control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, putting the former president in a tenuous position. He chose to adapt, and the 1996 welfare reform act was the epitome of such adaptation. Barack Obama, on the other hand, didn't let the drubbing his party took in the 2010 election faze him. He has chosen to ignore that mandate and force-feed his leftist ideology to the American public, even if it takes executive orders, or Cabinet level-decrees bypassing Congress, to do so.

Bill Clinton sought to triangulate. Obama's strategy is far more thuggish: my administration will do whatever we want, and we dare someone to stop us. "We had been attempting to highlight the inability of Congress to do anything," former White House chief of staff William M. Daley said last April. "The president expressed frustration, saying we have got to scour everything and push the envelope in finding things we can do on our own."

Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, and one of the original authors of the reform bill, called this strategy “a brazen and unwarranted unraveling” of the law that “ends welfare reform as we know it.” Orrin Hatch (R-UT) also expressed his displeasure. "I'm disappointed that after years of sitting on their hands and failing to propose any significant improvements to the TANF programs, the Obama Administration is once again over-stepping their authority and attempting to circumvent Congress through an unprecedented bypass of the legislative process," he said. Both men have written a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting a "detailed explanation of your Department's legal reasoning behind the guidance," and noting that the authority to waive the work requirements in the TANF program is an authority "not asserted by any other Secretary in the 16 years since the TANF program began."

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney offered his take on the change as well. "President Obama now wants to strip the established work requirements from welfare," he said, further noting that "the linkage of work and welfare is essential to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life."

No doubt it is -- just as there is virtually no doubt the president is trying to break that linkage for naked political gain. Much like last week's revelation that the Department of Agriculture was actively soliciting Spanish-speaking people to join the food stamp program (a gambit they dropped after an expose by the Daily Caller) this move smacks of nothing more than the latest effort to increase the size of the dependency class that Democrats consider essential to their political well-being. Progressive ideology would already be consigned to the ash heap of history were it not for the overt effort of its adherents to convince substantial numbers of Americans that their dependency on the state is nothing more than an integral component of "social justice."

The administration claims that the "new steps we have taken will give states more flexibility in how they operate the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program," as George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families contends. Yet there is no ignoring the reality that such flexibility is being implemented by decree. It reveals the utter bankruptcy of an administration that knows it can't get Congress to implement its ideologically suspect agenda. Thus, their "solution" for congressional intransigence is reduced to three words: Congress be damned.

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