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Farewell, Welfare Reform

President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton in the White House briefing room in 2012

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On Thursday, President Obama, through the Department of Health and Human Services, quietly released an official policy directive. Utilizing an obscure legal device from the original Social Security Act, the administration claimed the right to waive the work requirements for able-bodied people that formed the backbone of a generation of welfare reform. This directive could very well allow the welfare state to regress to its bloated worst.

The move is vintage Obama, and it contains several of his administration’s most dubious hallmarks. It is legally suspect, ignoring both the letter of the law and the clear intent of Congress to specifically shield welfare reform from willy-nilly rewriting at the hands of federal bureaucrats. It reflects the administration’s taste for the selective enforcement of the laws it is sworn to uphold. It cements executive orders and policy directives as the legislative instruments du jour, superseding boring, old-fashioned acts of Congress. And it even reminds us how much of the entitlement state now runs through Kathleen Sebelius and HHS. 

But as with so much in this administration, the policy is even worse than the process.

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After multiple iterations and intense negotiations, the Republican Congress passed, and in 1996 President Clinton signed, a transformational restructuring of the federal welfare state. What had been called “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” (AFDC), a vestige of the New Deal that over the decades had swollen to infamy by incentivizing single-motherhood and out-of-wedlock birth, was replaced with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). 

It gave the states broad freedom to design and implement assistance programs that met their differing needs. But undergirding this flexibility was a set of tough but humane welfare-to-work standards that all states would have to meet. TANF placed a five-year lifetime limit on benefits, and able-bodied recipients were required to work, prepare for work, or at least look for a job as a condition for receiving aid. Robust, clear federal standards for what counts as “work” were vital to making this arrangement function, and to fending off claims from some states that everything from “exercise” to “journaling” counted toward gainful employment.

The reforms were not perfect, but they embodied the belief, not nearly so counterintuitive as it sounds, that welfare ought to be self-undermining. That is, a welfare program should be called successful if and only if it helps get people off of welfare. In the AFDC era, the dependency rolls never appreciably shrank. But in the years after reform took effect, 3.6 million people — and 2.9 million children — escaped poverty; childhood hunger was halved; employment among single mothers skyrocketed; and the rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing slowed. All of this happened even as the welfare caseload was cut in half.

These results flabbergasted left-wing wonks and stalwart Democrats, who predicted that reform would push millions into destitution and turn the war on poverty into a war on the poor. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan perhaps ventured farthest into hyperbole, calling the bill “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction.”

Rarely in the hurly-burly of politics and policy do both sides get an opportunity to test their ideas in the laboratory of reality and compare results, but that is exactly what happened with welfare reform. Defenders of the New Deal/Great Society legacy were forced to put their record up against a new approach that focused on strong families and personal responsibility. And they lost. What emerged was something close to a consensus, with opponents of TANF and its adjuncts either won over or silenced.

Which is what makes this president’s displayed preference for the Old Time Religion of the dole so astonishing. After spending years expanding the food-stamp rolls to unprecedented levels, he appears to have turned his sights on TANF, and is poised to fritter away 15 years of gains in the fight against poverty and dependency. Signing welfare reform was Bill Clinton’s greatest act of apostasy from the vantage point of the anti-reform liberal Democrats — it led to multiple resignations in his Department of Health and Human Services. Obama’s move, then, shows once again that he is well to Clinton’s left. Republicans should make a major issue of this latest evidence of the president’s unreconstructed liberalism.



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