A campaign ad by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has brought the long-dormant issue of welfare-to-work back to the political center stage.
Romney saw an opening when on July 12 the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued an "information memorandum" to state welfare-plan administrators regarding "waiver and expenditure authority." The memo said the Department wanted to give states more flexibility in meeting welfare-to-work requirements in order to "allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius contends that she has the legal authority to waive compliance with the work requirements of the landmark 1996 welfare-reform law, known as "Section 407," even though Congress in 2005 declined an appeal from a number of governors (including Jim Douglas) to enact such an authority.
Here’s how "welfare" -- now known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) -- works. Each state submits to HHS a plan spelling out how it proposes to meet the requirements set forth in the 1996 act. HHS approves the plan, and makes payments to the state to finance it.
HHS has statutory authority to waive a long list of provisions of the 1996 act if the state’s plan proposes alternative ways of achieving the overall goals of welfare reform. But at the time, Democratic President Bill Clinton was waging war against the "heartless" work requirements insisted upon by the Republican House. In fact, Clinton twice vetoed work-based welfare reform bills before reluctantly signing the 1996 act -- over howling liberal opposition.
Knowing all this, Congress put the work requirements into a separate section of the Act -- Section 407 -- specifically designed to protect them from being waived by any future liberal administration. It also provided that states that put more than 30 percent of their TANF participants into something other than actual work ("getting ready for work") would lose some federal funding.
The Vermont ReachUp (TANF) plan says that all participating adults, unless granted a deferral, shall be required to fulfill the work requirement spelled out in their Family Development Plans when they are work-ready. If the participant refuses to work when work-ready, the department shall reduce or terminate his or her payments.
Obviously "work-ready" offers some exit ramps. Participants who are too sick to work, or who have dependent children and no available day care, are deferred from working. So are participants engaged in a list of activities related, sometimes tenuously, to work (such as job-seeking, completing high school, and on-the-job training/work experience). Gov. Douglas in 2003 opted Vermont out of a community service work requirement where regular jobs are not available.
Romney and other Republicans hammered the HHS memo, charging that Obama "with a very careful executive action, removed the requirement of work from welfare". A Romney campaign ad declared "You wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
Chimed in Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker when the welfare-to-work bill passed in 1996, "Why would any everyday American believe that [HHS Secretary Sebelius], if she makes it optional, is going to enforce a work requirement?" An indignant Obama campaign spokeswoman offered a denial from former President Clinton, though other Democratic figures might be more widely renowned for truth telling.
What are citizens to make of all this? Romney and the Republicans are right to be suspicious at any attempt by liberal officials, serving a president who as a state senator denounced the 1996 act, to offer the states "flexibility" on enforcing the act’s work requirements. They are also right that there is no authority in that act for an HHS Secretary to exercise waiver authority over the stiff work requirements of Section 407.
On the other hand, no state has yet applied for a waiver, and Sebelius has forcefully stated that "we will not accept any changes that undercut employment-focused welfare reforms that were signed into law fifteen years ago." So it’s a bit early to sell the claim that Obama wants to "create a nation of government dependency".
What is troubling about the episode, aside from the campaign exaggerations, is Obama’s declared position that he will do anything and everything he can by executive action, and Congress be damned. In that context, his offer to the states to waive the demanding work requirements of Section 407 looks like one more example of a president trying to get what he wants without action by Congress.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).