Mark Hemingway on the Welfare-to-Work Waivers

by Reihan Salam

There are many fascinating passages in Mark Hemingway’s new Weekly Standard article on the welfare-to-work controversy. The following concerns the Obama administration’s requirement that state governments receiving waivers would have to increase the number of employment exists from the TANF role, a provision that has led many observers to conclude that the welfare-to-work waivers are designed to strengthen rather than weaken work requirements:

[Robert] Rector [of the Heritage Foundation] calls the idea that states would have to show a “20 percent increase in employment exits” the “oldest con game in welfare statistics. The number of employment exits [from welfare] is simply a function of the size of the caseload.” In other words, if employment exits from welfare programs are increasing, that’s usually an indication that the number of people on welfare is going up. There’s a large body of data confirming this correlation, and the reverse is also true. It was a sign of welfare reform’s success when the number of employment exits in the TANF program actually dropped. Over time, fewer people were exiting welfare because the size of America’s welfare rolls had dwindled greatly. States that wanted to have work requirements waived would understand Sebelius’s metric as an incentive to increase their welfare rolls.

The 20 percent increase in employment exits also amounts to requiring states to document a minuscule change. Writing in the Washington Post on September 6, Rector observes, “In the typical state, about 1.5 percent of the TANF caseload leaves the rolls each month because of employment. To be exempt from the federal work requirement, a state would have to raise that number to about 1.8 percent.” He goes on to note that such a small increase could be created by creative recordkeeping or slight upticks in the economy.

Hemingway’s article is well worth reading, and one hopes that it will be read outside of conservative circles. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.