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Obama’s Attack on ‘Workfare’
The president’s goal is to spread the wealth by massively increasing the welfare state.

Screen shot from a Team Romney campaign ad on President Obama’s welfare record (mittromney.com)

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Robert Rector

President Obama has created a firestorm by overturning the work requirements of the popular 1996 welfare-reform law. Now his White House is bristling because Mitt Romney dares to point out that fact on the stump and in a new campaign ad.

Obama’s move is only the latest step in a long history of liberal opposition to work requirements. The Left blocked welfare-reform efforts under both Presidents Nixon and Reagan, for example.

In 1996, a Republican Congress drafted a welfare-reform law — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — that for the first time established meaningful work standards for welfare recipients. President Clinton reluctantly signed this legislation.

Ever since, Democratic leaders have attempted — unsuccessfully — to repeal welfare’s work standards, blocking reauthorization of TANF and attempting to weaken the requirements.

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Unable to eliminate “workfare” legislatively, the Left now acts contrary to the law and employs a bureaucratic maneuver to gut the work requirements. The Obama administration claims authority to grant waivers that allow states to skirt these requirements.

This hostility to workfare is deeply at odds with the public’s view. A recent Rasmussen survey reveals that 83 percent of adults favor work requirements. Only 7 percent oppose them.

Recognizing such strong support for work requirements, liberals historically used camouflage tactics: They publicly praised workfare while seeking to murder it behind the scenes. The Obama administration has adopted this “talk right, govern left” strategy.

Humorously, Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius even asserts that the administration abolished the TANF work requirements in order to increase work.

This is false.

The Obama administration claims authority to overhaul every aspect of the TANF work provisions (section 407), including “definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures and the calculation of participation rates” — in other words, the whole work program. Sebelius’s HHS bureaucracy declared the existing TANF law a blank slate on which it can write any policy it chooses. 

Because HHS granted itself total authority to change any aspect of the work standards, the agency will not be bound by its state-by-state waiver approach in the future.

Moreover, HHS has made it clear that it will not accept waivers for new conservative policies. The agency’s guidance states that it will not approve policy initiatives that are “likely to reduce access to aid.” Translation: HHS will oppose any policy that reduces welfare caseloads. 

Following the historic pattern, the Obama administration wrapped its anti-work policies in pro-work rhetoric. Stung by criticism, HHS now claims that states receiving a waiver must “commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared [with] the state’s prior performance.”

This sounds impressive, but a state can accomplish this merely by raising monthly “employment exits” (people exiting welfare to take a job) from, say, 5 percent to 6 percent of its caseload. That kind of change will occur automatically as the economy improves.

Liberals traditionally use sham “exit” statistics to pretend they are shrinking welfare, while in reality they’re increasing it. Given the normal turnover rate in welfare programs, the easiest way to increase the number of individuals moving from “welfare to work” is to increase the number entering welfare in the first place.

Bogus statistical ploys like these were the norm before the 1996 reform. TANF curtailed the use of sham measures of success and established meaningful standards: Participating in work activities meant actual work activities, not “bed rest” or “reading” or doing one hour of job search per month; reducing welfare dependence meant reducing caseloads. Now those standards are gone.

Obama’s goal is to “spread the wealth” by massively increasing the welfare state. The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs. Roughly a third of the population receives benefits from one or more of these programs. (These figures do not include Social Security or Medicare.) Total welfare spending in 2011 came to $927 billion.

Last month, only three of these programs included any type of work requirement. Now that number is two, since Obama ended welfare reform as we know it.

— Robert Rector, a leading authority on poverty and the welfare system, is senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation.  



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