Major bipartisan accomplishments in federal policy feel like a rarity these days. But it was just over 20 years ago that the parties came together to pass significant, positive reforms to our nation’s cash assistance program for families in poverty. The 1996 welfare-reform law, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, significantly strengthened work requirements in a new program, now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
In the years following the law’s enactment, child-poverty rates dropped significantly and employment among poor mothers increased, while teen pregnancy and abortion rates continued to fall. Policies that encouraged work succeeded in achieving the intended, positive result: fewer Americans in poverty and more Americans providing for themselves.
That is why it was so disappointing that the Obama administration chose to issue guidance in 2012 encouraging states to apply for waivers from the TANF work requirements — undermining a law that had a proven track record of benefiting our most vulnerable fellow citizens.
President Trump and this administration believe in promoting work, not dependency, and in building on the success of the bipartisan 1996 welfare-reform law, not dismantling it. So this week, the Trump administration rescinded the previous administration’s guidance that encouraged states to pursue work-requirement waivers.
At the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — which runs the TANF program — we are looking closely at ways to better encourage and support work. It is integral to the health and well-being of individuals to support themselves and their families, to the extent possible, through work. If our welfare programs are not designed with that in mind, they are doing a disservice to the people they are intended to help.
Achieving this requires help from outside the federal government. We need significant buy-in from the states, which administer most welfare programs, as well as from the full spectrum of civil society. Helping Americans get back to work is not as simple as imposing a broad work requirement; it also means putting people at the center of our policies by thinking about what kind of unique support an individual might need to get back to work. States should strengthen the employment programs they run with TANF funding and focus on helping recipients reach self-sufficiency.
Everyone intuitively understands that people need good health in order to work, but fewer people think about how beneficial work can be to maintaining good health.
As a physician, I find this cause close to my heart. Everyone intuitively understands that people need good health in order to work, but fewer people think about how beneficial work can be to maintaining good health. Encouraging work is a fundamental part of our mission at HHS to improve the health and well-being of the American people.
There is a robust academic literature on this topic. A review of the evidence by the British government in 2006 found that employment is a big booster of physical and mental well-being. “There is a strong association between worklessness and poor health,” the British report found. Most important, people who “move off benefits and (re)-enter work generally experience improvements in income, socio-economic status, mental and general health, and well-being.”
As a successful businessman who has employed thousands of Americans, President Trump believes deeply in the dignity of work and the greatness of the American worker. That is just one more reason why this administration is so committed to putting work at the center of our vision for welfare programs. This week’s decision from HHS recognizes that the very best service we can provide for many Americans is not a government benefit but the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families.