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August 15, 2012

'Gut' Check: Obama Waiver Eviscerates Welfare Reform

By

Time to fact-check the fact-checkers.

Citing Heritage Foundation research, Mitt Romney's campaign ran an ad accusing President Obama of attempting to "gut" welfare reform by waiving work requirements for recipients. The Obama campaign pushed back, claiming that waiving work requirements would "strengthen" reform by helping more recipients "prepare for work."

Typical of much media commentary on this contretemps, The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler called the Romney ad "over-the-top," while faulting the Obama campaign for falsely claiming that Mr. Romney had sought a similar waiver while governor of Massachusetts.

Conspicuously absent from his analysis? Any real scrutiny of the Obama waiver proposal or the welfare-reform law itself.

So let's take a look at the facts.

In 2006, Congress replaced the failed Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with TANF -- the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program. TANF made two major changes: It gave states more flexibility in running their welfare programs, but second, able-bodied welfare recipients would have to work.

Section 407, entitled "Mandatory Work Requirements," was the centerpiece of the legislation. It requires that states reduce or terminate payments to individuals who refuse to work without good cause.

But Congress knew well that states (or a work-hostile administration) might try to manipulate their regulations to skirt the work requirement. So it established a second requirement: To be eligible for federal TANF funds, state welfare programs "shall achieve" minimum work-participation rates for welfare recipients: 50 percent for all families and 90 percent for two-parent families.

Congress also defined what counts as "work" (so the bureaucrats couldn't count Weight Watchers or smoking-cessation therapy) and how participation rates must be calculated. And it put a hard 30 percent cap on the proportion of a state's welfare recipients who could participate in educational activities and still be counted as engaged in work.

When Congress was done, there wasn't any room for gaming.

And that's where things stood until last month, when the Obama administration announced it would grant waivers authorizing states to evade Section 407's "definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures, and the calculation of participation rates."

The same memorandum makes clear that the administration will not grant any waivers that "reduce access to assistance or employment for needy families." Instead, it encourages states to "test multi-year career pathways for TANF recipients" and to use "a comprehensive universal engagement system in lieu of certain participation-rate requirements."

So does the new policy "gut" welfare reform or strengthen it? For those who bother to look at Section 407, the answer is straightforward.

If, as its backers contend, the Obama administration were truly interested in increasing work participation among welfare recipients, it wouldn't need to issue a single waiver. Nothing in the law prevents states from exceeding the minimum requirements.

The only possible purpose for waivers is to undermine work requirements, and the administration's memorandum basically concedes as much. It calls on states to weaken or abandon work requirements in favor of fuzzy metrics that do not actually require welfare recipients to "work," in a way that word is normally understood.

Preparation for work and "career pathways," which the new policy emphasize, are most assuredly not the same thing as work. This is a pathway to the past, when states credited personal journaling, motivational reading, exercise at home, and helping friends run errands as "work." And that's also how the administration can claim that loosening work requirements would actually result in more persons working -- simply by contriving new "definitions of work activities and engagement."

And it's all blatantly illegal. With 21 uses of the word "shall," the language of Section 407 is not open to much interpretation. Elsewhere, the law allows some waivers, but Section 407 is not on the waiver list.

So, yes, it's safe to say the attempt to waive work requirements "guts" welfare reform. What's "over the top" is minimizing the significance of this new policy.

• Andrew M. Grossman is a visiting legal fellow in the Heritage Foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

First appeared in Washington Times.

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