Clinton Helps Obama Undermine Welfare Reform

By Adam Selig

Former president Bill Clinton is doing his part to undermine the welfare reform act that he signed 16 years ago. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that he only signed the Republican Congress’s bill into law because he was in the thick of a heated reelection battle. 

In a characteristically lengthy speech at this year’s Democratic convention, Clinton assailed Mitt Romney for campaign ads accusing Democrats of seeking to gut welfare reform. Romney’s ads are a critique of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which under President Obama’s administration has been inviting states to apply for waivers exempting recipients of a key welfare program from work requirements.

“Now,” asked Clinton with his expertly arrogant phrasing, “did I make myself clear? The requirement was for more work, not less.” Clinton is partly right. The requirement was for more work. But critics rightly warn that the waivers could potentially weaken work requirements. Clinton is doing a disservice to the American taxpayer with this disingenuous defense of President Obama. Despite Clinton’s reckless disregard for the facts, they speak for themselves.

The program at the center of the controversy is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). By 2006, a decade after the institution of work requirements, about 2.5 million families had left the program. Even with the slower economy of the late 90s, enrollment in the program remained down. And the poverty rate for female-headed families with children sharply plummeted from 46 to 28 percent during those 10 years.

Opponents’ predictions of disaster for poor kids weren’t borne out at all. But this hasn’t stopped the liberal officials at HHS from seeking to risk that successful record through the new waivers policy. Predictably, given that so many welfare recipients are black, the liberal response has included cheap accusations that Republicans are playing racial politics.

That’s blatantly false. This is about less work, which means more dependency. And bad as dependency is in its own right, it costs the taxpayer too. While the 1996 welfare reform’s success in ending long-term dependency is well documented, federal welfare spending as a whole stands at an all-time high, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation points out that Washington runs more than 80 means-tested programs that can be considered welfare. These programs provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to more than 100 million Americans. In 2011, they cost nearly $1 trillion. Yet of those many programs, only TANF and two others have a substantial work requirement.

Rector, in analyzing the changes proposed by HHS this summer, warns: “The Obama Administration is not merely gutting welfare reform; it is standing it on its head.”

One concern is that the department might give substantial—and loosely defined—groups a free pass on work requirements. HHS notes the possibility of a waiver if a state has projects that “demonstrate strategies for more effectively serving individuals with disabilities.” That’s bogus right from the start, according to Rector, because TANF recipients are not disabled. The disabled poor are in a different program, Supplemental Security Income.

But of course, disability can be a very broad concept, and under HHS’s new policy of waiver-granting, if a large number of TANF recipients get categorized as disabled, a state might no longer need to move them toward workforce participation. It could thus be dubiously credited with a high or increased rate of employment, or employment-related activities, based on a now-shrunken group of non-disabled recipients.

Other troubling possibilities include soft new definitions of what “legitimate work-related activities” means, a drastic reduction of the currently required 20 to 30 hours a week, and even replacing participation requirements with what welfare professionals call “employment exits.” Number crunching bureaucrats would effectively substitute people leaving the program upon finding regular jobs for the number of current recipients engaged in work activities—when it’s the latter that is the much more important figure.

Critics of work-activity waivers point to a letter from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to Congressman Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in which she said states seeking them must promise that that their proposals of experiments justifying the application will “move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance.”

According to Rector, a 20 percent reduction of recipients might sound good on paper, but might not be much of a success story. Some people “exit” welfare naturally as they take jobs without pressure from bureaucrats. Sebelius’ magic number of 20 percent can even be indirectly attained by an increase in a state’s total number of welfare recipients. The more welfare recipients there are, the more “exits” are likely, even if the percentage finding work is small. Furthermore, Rector maintains, a state might well achieve an apparent 20 percent increase simply by improving its record-keeping so that exits are more promptly noted. This is why the drafters of the 1996 law deliberately excluded employment exits as a measure of success.

Apart from the questionable policy merits of its move, it appears that HHS simply doesn’t have the legal authority to brush aside work-participation requirements. Russell Sykes, a former New York state welfare official who is now a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute writes that in the decade and a half since TANF’s enactment: “HHS has repeatedly turned down waiver requests from states regarding work requirements or other provisions of the law, stating on each occasion that the agency did not have the authority to grant the waivers.”

Rector of the Heritage Foundation, who helped to draw up the work-requirement provisions in the 1996 reform, cites a summary prepared by Congress shortly after it became law. “Waivers granted after the date of enactment,” the summary says, “may not override provisions of the TANF law that concern mandatory work requirements.” In addition, members of Congress who were closely involved in drafting the statute have recently asserted that the administration’s actions contradict both its language and its intent.

And a damning legal finding in early September from the Government Accountability Office (Congress’s investigative agency) supported Rector’s position that HHS far exceeded its authority, concluding that the department must get approval from Congress for its waivers. Later that month, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted by a wide margin to express disapproval of the undermining of the work requirement.

The problem goes well beyond an apparent intention to weaken welfare reform, bad though that is. President Obama and his administration have a frighteningly extensive pattern of overusing executive authority to impose or try to impose, on their own, unpopular policies and ones that won’t get through Congress. In some cases they have simply ignored the law.

Obama’s transgressions haven’t escaped the notice of congress.  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor documents the administration’s long list of abuses in his report, “The Imperial Presidency.” And numerous congressional committees have investigated.

Like the shafting of secured creditors in the auto industry bailout, the decision to exempt a large category of illegal immigrants from even possible deportation, seemingly promiscuous waiver-granting to states unwilling to live with the No Child Left Behind educational standards act, and politically convenient selective waivers of obligations under Obamacare, the prospective illegal HHS welfare waivers are not only terrible policy. They are inconsistent with the spirit of self-government.

Adam Selig is executive director of Engage America.

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