From today's Wall Street Journal:
Welfare Reform as We Knew It: Inside the Obama work waiver: It's worse than Romney says.The welfare work requirement written into law by the Clinton administration has been circumvented by the Obama administration. With a wink, a nod, and bureaucratic paper shuffling.
So it's a good moment to dissect what the Administration is really trying to do, because in this case Mr. Romney is right: The Administration has made welfare's work requirements far weaker, and for ideological reasons that the press corps has failed to report.
The 1996 welfare landmark is among the few serious bipartisan reforms of government since the Great Society. State innovators like Tommy Thompson's Wisconsin gave Contract-with-America Republicans a model, while Bill Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it." Their insight was that both welfare recipients and the bureaucracies built around them needed better incentives to end dependency, such as time limits on cash benefits and asking the able-bodied to work or train to prepare for work.
Unreconstructed liberals—then about half of Democrats in Congress—predicted a return to Bleak House. Some Clinton officials resigned when he signed the bill. They were wrong in every way. Caseloads plunged by half, to 5.9 million in 2000 from 12.6 million in 1996. Health and Human Service Department studies show that most found work and saw their incomes rise.
The anti-reformers have nonetheless looked for an opening to resurrect the old system. They have now found a way via an HHS regulatory "information memorandum" in July that said the agency would waive workfare requirements if states asked.
HHS is selling this under the guise of "flexibility" and says the point is to get more people working, not fewer. But recall that the joint state-federal welfare program has always had "work" requirements. Prior to 1996, they included such demands as journaling, bed rest and massage therapy.
For this reason, the statute specifically enumerated a 12-point definition of "work." People who can but don't meet the work terms eventually lose benefits. States have enormous flexibility to help recipients back into the job market. But they forfeit a portion of their federal money unless a certain percentage of their caseload complies—generally between 30% and 40%.
HHS has unilaterally upended these incentives. States can now get a waiver if they want "to test approaches and methods other than those set forth in section 407," the work requirement provision, including new "definitions of work activities and engagement."
The crucial change is that HHS is saying they can experiment instead of complying with the law.
This new standard didn't appear out of thin air, but is part of a liberal critique of welfare reform that has made its way into the Administration.
his is the reform that the Administration has, in fact, gutted. There's flexibility to innovate and there's "flexibility." In the first case, HHS has denied Governors the running room to redesign Medicaid to be more cost effective. But now it tells states that they don't have to comply with the most basic obligation of welfare reform. It's as if HHS told states they can have the "flexibility" not to cover health care for poor people. [link]
Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.