August 9, 2012 | Commentary on Work and Welfare
President Obama has announced his intention to issue waivers that would exempt states from federal welfare-to-work requirements, overturning the foundation of the successful welfare-reform law of 1996. And now former president Bill Clinton, who signed that celebrated measure into law, has rushed to Obama’s defense by confusing his own record.
In proclaiming the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to unilaterally waive federal work standards, Obama clearly is violating the law. After a campaign ad for Mitt Romney attacked Obama for gutting the core work requirements of welfare reform, Clinton issued a statement attempting to defend the legality of Obama’s move.
Clinton’s statement declared that, as president, he “granted waivers from the old law to 44 states to implement welfare to work strategies before the welfare reform passed.”
So Clinton seeks to use waivers he granted in the early 1990s to justify Obama’s effort to use waivers to overturn the 1996 law.
Clinton does not actually lie. He rightly says that the waivers he granted applied to the old law and program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), not to the new law and program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Although AFDC had permitted HHS to waive provisions relating to work, the TANF reform did not permit such waivers.
Clinton was in the White House for four and a half years after the passage of welfare reform, but he never once suggested he had authority to waive the work standards in the new TANF program — although he had vetoed an earlier version of the bill. It was obvious that no such waiver authority existed.
More important, the old AFDC statute contained numerous provisions blocking states from operating “workfare” programs. The waivers Clinton had granted were to enable states to bypass those anti-work obstacles. The 1996 reform, for the first time, required states to establish workfare programs.
A brief history of welfare reform is useful in understanding this issue. President Reagan sought to establish national work requirements within the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program through legislation such as the Greater Opportunities through Work (GROW) Act. Liberals in Congress blocked this effort.
As a fallback strategy, the Reagan White House promoted waivers in AFDC that would enable states to develop experimental workfare programs. The administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton continued this strategy. Nonetheless, as the Reagan White House had anticipated, most such waivers were ineffective.
In the early 1990s, however, Wisconsin and Oregon developed strong, conservative workfare programs that dramatically decreased AFDC caseloads while increasing work. These two state programs would serve as models for welfare reformers.
When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they returned to the original goal of establishing national work requirements. The legislative objective was to replace welfare with workfare.
The law passed in 1996 did indeed establish such requirements, using the lessons learned from the Wisconsin and Oregon programs. The law did not permit waivers of the federal work requirements since such waivers would have undermined the core purpose of the legislation: to require able-bodied adults to work in exchange for their benefits.
Again, over the next four and a half years President Clinton never attempted to issue waivers of the work requirements. His restrained conduct in this regard is in stark contrast to President Obama’s conduct.
The left wing of the Democratic party adamantly opposed federal work requirements in 1996. It sought to repeal these requirements entirely during the TANF reauthorization debate in 2002. Now, since the Democrats have been unable to abolish workfare legislatively, the Obama administration has overthrown the work provisions through bureaucratic action. It has staged a coup d’état in welfare.
Americans, however, are extremely fond of the concept of requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to work for their taxpayer-funded benefits. Hence the Obama administration’s desperate attempts to blur the difference between Obama’s waivers and Clinton’s.
First appeared in National Review Online's The Corner.