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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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How a Memo on Welfare Became a Campaign Target


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

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.”

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