The White House is pushing back against Mitt Romney’s claim that President Obama is dismantling federal welfare reform. The Department of Health and Human Services has announced that it will consider requests by states for waivers regarding work requirements for welfare recipients. Romney says that this will enable the federal government to take the “work’ out of the popular “workfare” system put in place by President Clinton and a Republican Congress.
Team Obama contends that this is not true. Rather, says the administration, it is simply engaging in regulatory reform in response to states, including some governed by Republicans, for less paper work and more latitude in administering the program.
The Washington Post, in a story by Philip Rucker (a virtual member of Team Obama) and Bill Turque, buys the Obama defense in its entirety. Treating Bill Clinton as a non-partisan arbiter, the two Post-men note that the former president has rejected Romney’s charge. Relying further on White House talking points, the Post tells us that Romney himself sought a waiver as governor of Massachusetts in 2005.
But Robert Rector, writing for NRO, demolishes the Obama/Washington Post defense. He notes that Obama’s maneuver is not about accommodating states (except for those governed by liberals who wish to gut work requirements):
The Obama administration claims authority to overhaul every aspect of the TANF work provisions (section 407), including “definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures and the calculation of participation rates” — in other words, the whole work program. Sebelius’s HHS bureaucracy declared the existing TANF law a blank slate on which it can write any policy it chooses. Because HHS granted itself total authority to change any aspect of the work standards, the agency will not be bound by its state-by-state waiver approach in the future.
Moreover, “flexibility” for the states only works one way:
HHS has made it clear that it will not accept waivers for new conservative policies. The agency’s guidance states that it will not approve policy initiatives that are “likely to reduce access to aid.” Translation: HHS will oppose any policy that reduces welfare caseloads.
Team Obama touts a feature in its new policy under which states receiving a waiver must “commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared [with] the state’s prior performance.” But Rector shows that this provision is virtually meaningless:
Liberals traditionally use sham “exit” statistics to pretend they are shrinking welfare, while in reality they’re increasing it. 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. Bogus statistical ploys like these were the norm before the 1996 reform. TANF curtailed the use of sham measures of success and established meaningful standards: Participating in work activities meant actual work activities, not “bed rest” or “reading” or doing one hour of job search per month; reducing welfare dependence meant reducing caseloads. Now those standards are gone.
In sum, Romney is right – the Obama administration is gutting welfare reform. By doing so, it will advance Obama’s longtime objective of spreading the wealth around.
Yet again, Obama has found a way to promote his left-wing agenda under the guise of pursuing mainstream goals – here, regulatory reform, of all things. It’s a clever approach but one that would not have fooled the Washington Post were it interested in objective reporting, instead of helping Obama.
UPDATE: A reader who specializes in this issue and is well-positioned to understand what Obama has done provides the following analysis:
Ron Haskins [a former Republican House staffer who worked on the 1996 welfare reform legislation] is quoted in the Post piece supporting the waiver policy, because he thinks the Obama Administration actually wants to give states’ additionally flexibility to move in innovative welfare policies. There is some (not necessarily persuasive) argument for giving states’ additional flexibility – but only through a limited, statutory change with clear limits on the authority. The Administration has basically given itself, and any future Administration (i.e., post November for a possible second Obama Administration), the right to wipe out work requirements in the future.
The fact that Congress was not even consulted on this change kind of gives the game away. Had the Administration tried first to work with Congress on a limited statutory change and failed, then one could argue in good faith that the Administration isn’t trying to gut the work requirements. The way they went about this though, makes it much more difficult to sustain that argument.