It's been a month since the Obama administration released its directive from Health and Human Services (HHS) to gut work requirements from welfare - and it's created no small stir. Facing significant pushback, the Administration has attempted to defend itself, but on shaky ground.
From the beginning, HHS's argument claiming the authority to waive work requirements was convoluted. It asserted that - because section 402 of the welfare law is subject to waivers, and because section 402 refers to section 407 (the part of the law that specifies the work requirements) - then 407 is subject to waivers as well.
But Congress specifically included provisions to protect the work requirement from waiver authority ("HHS Can't Waive Workfare" by Andrew M. Grossman & Robert Rector, National Review Online):
"Section 407 establishes stand-alone work requirements for state welfare plans that brook no exceptions. And Section 407 is absent from the list of sections that the HHS secretary does have the authority to waive. That alone proves that [HHS Secretary Kathleen] Sebelius lacks any authority to waive the work requirements."
The Romney campaign has released two ads calling out President Obama for his attempt to waive workfare. Former President Clinton—who signed the 1996 welfare reform law—promptly released a statement defending the Obama Administration's actions.
Clinton attempted to justify the Obama administration's waivers on the basis that, during his presidency, Clinton had "granted waivers from the old law to 44 states to implement welfare to work strategies before the welfare reform passed." Trouble is, Clinton's waivers applied to the old law (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). The 1996 law (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)—the one signed by Clinton--flatly prohibits waivers for work requirements.
The Obama administration has also tried to justify its actions by claiming that Republican governors sought similar waivers back in 2005. This is another faulty argument.
Yes, nearly 30 conservative governors did send a letter to then-Senate Majority leader Bill Frist in 2005 seeking greater flexibility in how welfare was administered. But they were not seeking relief from the work requirement. In fact, the governors' letter encouraged the reauthorization of a law that would have strengthened welfare's work requirements.
The work requirement is very popular with Americans. According to a July Rasmussen Report, 83 percent support it. That's why the Administration is trying to deny the effect of what they are doing. Secretary Sebelius has even claimed that the waivers will strengthen work participation. States receiving waivers, she says, will have to demonstrate that they can move 20 percent more welfare recipients into work. That's a sham use of statistics. "A state can accomplish this merely by raising monthly 'employment exits' (people exiting welfare to take a job) from, say, 5 to 6 percent of its caseload," points out Rector in NRO. "That kind of change will occur automatically as the economy improves. Given the normal turnover rate in welfare programs, the easiest way to increase the number of individuals moving from 'welfare to work' is to increase the number entering welfare in the first place."
The purpose of welfare reform was to help individuals become self-reliant. After decades of welfare system failure, the 1996 reforms finally allowed this to happen. And it did.
Michigan is one of the best examples of welfare reform's success. As the July 18 Detroit News noted - while national welfare rolls decreased by an average of 50 percent following the '96 reforms - Michigan registered an even more impressive, 62 percent decrease. An average of nearly 180,000 Michigan residents received a monthly welfare check In 1996, But just five years later that number had dipped to 70,000 as work participation rates jumped.
Removing welfare's work requirement does nothing to help those on welfare. It does nothing to ensure that the nearly $1 trillion a year American taxpayers spend to fund welfare is used to promote self-reliance. But it does play perfectly into President Obama's spread-the-wealth agenda.
The Administration's attempt to justify gutting work requirements fails to hold up to scrutiny.
Rachel Sheffield is a research associate at The Heritage Foundation
First appeared in The Michigan View.