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How a Memo on Welfare Became a Campaign Target How a Memo on Welfare Became a Campaign Target

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Politics / Politics

How a Memo on Welfare Became a Campaign Target

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

photo of Meghan McCarthy
August 8, 2012

An Obama administration memo sent to states last month on welfare programs has been seized upon by Republican Mitt Romney as an attempt undermine the 1996  overhaul of the assistance program. But the move was an effort to offer flexibility, not an attempt to gut the work requirements.

The welfare kerfuffle began in mid-July, as soon as the administration sent a memo informing states that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was willing to waive federal work requirements for state welfare programs if they come up with their own plans to “test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes.”

In other words, if states think they have a better way of getting welfare recipients to work than the federal rules — which can get as tedious as only counting a job search as “work” for four consecutive weeks — they can present that plan to Sebelius for approval. 


Congressional Republicans, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., immediately seized on the HHS decision, sending letters to Sebelius and making floor speeches that accused the agency of overstepping its authority.

“In essence, by the stroke of a pen — and against the clear intent of bipartisan majorities of the American people, Congress, and the law itself — President Obama’s administration has attempted to undo welfare reform, one of the signature bipartisan policy achievements of the last 20 years,” Hatch said on the Senate floor just days after the welfare memo came out.

Sebelius responded to Republicans’ concerns by getting even more specific on exactly what kind of jobs HHS would not approve. She told Republicans that dubious activities states had once claimed as “work” in the past would not fly under her purview. States would have to make a genuine effort to increase the number of welfare recipients who work.

“The department will not approve a waiver that changes the definition of work requirements to include any of the activities outlined in a 2005 [Government Accountability Office] report on [welfare programs] such as personal care activities, massage, and journaling,” Sebelius wrote.

But her efforts did not calm the storm. Less than a month after the welfare-waiver program was introduced, it has become the latest political football in the presidential election.

How did welfare end up this way? When it passed in 1996, it was viewed as a signature achievement by President Bill Clinton, who had promised to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” Passage of the bill, which attracted bipartisan support, helped to solidify Clinton’s credentials as a centrist Democrat but some liberal critics of warned at the time that it would add to hardships on poor families and undermine the social safety net.

But in 2005, Clinton’s work-to-welfare program rules were made stricter by Republicans in Congress and the George W. Bush White House despite requests from Republican governors — including Mitt Romney, that same year — for greater flexibility to run their state welfare programs.  

“The new rules made it harder for states to meet work requirements in a number of ways. It tightened up the definition of what counted as work with mandated HHS definitions, added verification requirements and penalties, and added a lot of paperwork for states,” said Liz Schott, a welfare expert at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“A lot of activities that have to do with preparing someone for work, like substance-abuse treatment or job-search and job-readiness training can only count for so many weeks a year,” Schott said.

Those challenges are part of the reason welfare hasn’t been working exactly as intended in the past few years. Instead of helping people while they try to get back to work, welfare has morphed into a program that sends half its money for parents to care for children — something that doesn’t have any work requirements — as states struggle to get recipients into jobs or activities that the federal government counts as work during one of the worst employment environments the country has ever seen.

Utah Republican Gary Herbert was one governor who wrote the Obama administration in 2011 requesting greater flexibility in the welfare program. He was writing in response to an Obama executive order that directed agencies to eliminate redundant regulations.

One thing Herbert wanted is a welfare program that measured outcomes, not just whether or not welfare recipients are doing the specific activities that count as work under federal guidelines.

“The lack of focus on outcomes makes the program less about the need to help parents find and retain work and more about the need to assure that parents are active in prescribed activities,” Herbert wrote. “The state spends too much time collecting data on how welfare recipients are fulfilling federal requirements for “work,” that they have little time to actually make sure people get into jobs that they will stay in.”

Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval also wanted greater flexibility. He had Nevada's Health and Human Services Department ask the federal government to tie work requirements to the state’s unemployment rate instead of continuing the current system, which uses benchmarks from the boom times of 2005. It also recommends giving the “hardest” to employ a six-month grace period so that barriers to employment, such as substance-abuse issues, can be addressed.

It’s not just governors who see problems with the current welfare work requirements. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress say the program needs fixing. The House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees have both held hearings over the work requirements in the past year, with Hatch criticizing current state programs as financing children and not adults. That happens as some state welfare caseworkers avoid taking on adults who are difficult to employ, lest they fail to meet their federal work benchmarks.

“Based on the spending and the composition of the caseload, one can argue that TANF — as a robust welfare-to-work program — has all but diminished and, in large part, been replaced by the emergence of TANF as a child-welfare program,” Hatch said at a June hearing.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, at a Ways and Means hearing expressed similar concerns that states were cherry-picking the easiest cases and making it too difficult for the neediest families to get the help they need.

“TANF has become, I believe, more hole than safety net, protecting fewer and fewer families as more and more have fallen deeper into poverty,” Doggett said. “The goal is not achieved when caseloads decline due to a lack of access for poor families rather than a decline in the number of poor families.”

In addition to a television ad that inaccurately claims that the Obama administration is ending welfare work requirements, Romney campaign representatives also have accused President Obama of working by “executive fiat.”

“It is yet another action of executive arrogance by this president,” Ted Cruz, Texas's Republican candidate for the Senate, said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.  “He simply decreed it by executive order. This has been a pattern of this administration. They believe their own ideology trumps that of the American people,” Cruz said.

The federal government has broad authority to approve state demonstration programs, often known as waivers, for big federal programs like welfare or Medicaid. Known as “Section 1115” waivers, the guidelines for welfare programs are specifically listed as one area where the secretary can waive requirements.

If Republican arguments that HHS overstepped its bounds hold weight, the arguments will play out in court. But so far, no suits on this particular issue have been filed.

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