Politics & Policy

Gutting ‘Workfare’ at Taxpayers’ Expense

Half of able-bodied recipients do no work at all for their welfare check; liberals aim to up that number.

Liberals in the House of Representatives voted unsuccessfully to jettison the federal work requirements established in the 1996 welfare-reform law. Even worse, as the losing side of the 250–164 vote late last week, they actually voted to increase the national debt to accomplish this.

Here’s the background. In 1996, Congress passed the popular welfare-reform law that replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with a new program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The law, for the first time, required some able-bodied welfare recipients to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid. The result: Welfare caseloads were cut in half, employment surged, and black child poverty hit a historic low.

But the left wing of the Democratic party has always hated the 1996 reform. Opponents included a state senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. A few years later, U.S. senator Barack Obama opposed reauthorization of the welfare-reform law and denounced the law’s work requirements on the Senate floor. Then, as president, Obama appointed some of the nation’s most zealous welfare-reform opponents to “oversee” the TANF program.

Unable to overturn the law in Congress, these appointees sought to gut it through a bureaucratic dirty trick. On July 12, the Obama administration issued an edict that illegally “waived compliance” with the work provisions. States would be free to ignore them.

A law that no one has to obey is not much of a law. Republicans in Congress denounced the administration’s action, arguing, correctly, that it had no legal authority to wipe out the work requirements.

In a resolution rejecting the Obama administration’s action, 250 members of the House (231 Republicans and 19 Democrats) voted Thursday to restore the work requirements; 164 Democrats voted against restoring them. But here’s the kicker: The congressmen who voted against restoration voted to increase the national debt to keep the work requirements in the morgue.

How so? The welfare-reform law imposed penalties on state governments that failed to require enough able-bodied recipients to work or prepare for work. The number crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office figured that, because the Obama administration was bypassing or greatly weakening the work requirements, state governments would not pay those penalties in the future. Fewer penalties paid would lead to less revenue collected and more debt.

The amount of lost revenue is small (by government standards) — $59 million over ten years. But the symbolic value is considerable. Liberals not only voted to kill off work requirements, they also billed the taxpayers to get the job done. Unfortunately, these opponents of “workfare” probably will get their way, because the liberal-controlled Senate will probably block any effort to restore the work rules.

The irony is that the work requirements in the TANF program are already far too weak. Today, about half of able-bodied recipients in the program sit at home and collect a check while doing absolutely nothing. That number will go up under the Obama plan.

Welfare is overwhelmingly about one-way handouts. In 2011, government spent $927 billion on more than 80 means-tested welfare programs. More than 100 million Americans, one-third of the population, received benefits at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient. (These figures do not include Social Security or Medicare.)

Of these 80-plus programs, three had a significant work requirement. Now it’s down to two if the Senate refuses to act. From the liberal perspective, the problem isn’t that welfare recipients don’t have to work; it’s that taxpayers don’t pay enough to support them.

— Robert Rector, senior research fellow in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of the new paper Obama’s End Run on Welfare Reform, Part One: Understanding Workfare.


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