The Campaign Spot

Obama & Sebelius Fundamentally Change Welfare Reform’s Philosophy

If someone wants to argue that the Romney ad claiming Obama “gutted” the work requirements of the 1996 welfare reform is hyperbolic, I suppose one can make that case. The work requirements aren’t “gutted” yet. But the change is fundamental and potentially quite far-reaching, and at the very least opens the door to making the work requirements optional or toothless.

Some of this has been covered by Mickey Kaus and Dave Weigel, but it’s worth discussing this further as much of the debate on the change to welfare is going to be in the “no, we didn’t”/”yes, you did” tone.

Here’s how HHS lays out the policy change:

While the TANF work participation requirements are contained in section 407, section 402(a)(1)(A)(iii) requires that the state plan “[e]nsure that parents and caretakers receiving assistance under the program engage in work activities in accordance with section 407.”  Thus, HHS has authority to waive compliance with this 402 requirement and authorize a state to test approaches and methods other than those set forth in section 407, including definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures, and the calculation of participation rates.  As described below, however, HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.

In other words, what counts as “work” is now more flexible. Two of the examples that are listed in the HHS announcement are:

  • “Projects that improve collaboration with the workforce and/or post-secondary education systems to test multi-year career pathways models for TANF recipients that combine learning and work.”

  • “Projects that test systematically extending the period in which vocational educational training or job search/readiness programs count toward participation rates, either generally or for particular subgroups, such as an extended training period for those pursuing a credential.  The purpose of such a waiver would be to determine through evaluation whether a program that allows for longer periods in certain activities improves employment outcomes.”

Now, job training and education are wonderful in theory, but the aim is to get welfare recipients into jobs. And the GAO has concluded that the data on the effectiveness of job training programs collecting federal funds is either outdated or nonexistent: “Little is known about the effectiveness of employment and training programs because, since 2004, only five reported conducting an impact study, and about half of all the remaining programs have not had a performance review of any kind.” James Bovard laid out the repeated failure of most federally-funded job training programs since 1962.

Sometimes a “job readiness program” will include teaching self-evidently useful skills like resume writing and techniques for job interviews… and sometimes it will include “self-esteem building“and “instruction on appropriate attire.” A program designed to build up the self-esteem of welfare recipients might be a genuine tool to help them develop the skills to find and hold a job… or it might just be taxpayer-funded happy talk. Either way, the idea of this being an acceptable substitute for the work requirements in place since 1996 seems… dubious. (Then there are the examples of waste and fraud in these programs, spending funds on “free lunches, hotels, flowers, event tickets.”)

Kaus observes that the “job-training is just as good as job-seeking” philosophy dominated welfare programs until 1996, and it was one of the reasons welfare was so unpopular and perceived as a failure. He summarizes, “Job training for welfare recipients always sounds good–instead of making a single mom take a dead end $10/hr job, why not let her stay on the dole while she gets a degree that will let her land a higher paying position? The problem is that if you let single moms mix welfare and training that will encourage more single moms to go on welfare in the first place–sign up, and we’ll pay you to go to community college! The rolls might grow, not shrink. Instead of being deterred from going on the dole–so they just go straight into jobs, bypassing welfare completely–would-be recipients will be lured into signing up first (by the promises of a “multi-year career pathway”) and then be subsidized and prodded to get off.”

Then, of course, there are the ominous implications of two of the proposed changes by Nevada:

  • Exempt the hardest-to-employ population for a period of time (i.e., six months) to allow time for their barriers to be addressed and their household circumstances stabilized;

This is effectively temporarily waiving work requirements. The Romney ad charge that “they just send you a check” is accurate if this provision is approved.

  • Consider measuring outcomes to signify a family’s progression towards self-sufficiency. Job readiness status is a continuum from those with the most barriers, least employable skills and least connection to the workforce to those who have employable skills, who are highly motivated and who only recently became unemployed… Such measures would take into account those individuals with the most significant barriers will need more time and assistance to become self-sufficient, while ensuring satisfactory progression towards that goal.

In effect, Nevada wants any kind of progress or improvement in welfare recipients status to count as “good enough” to meet federal requirements. But in the end, while welfare recipients’ job readiness status may be “a continuum”, employment isn’t a continuum: you’re either employed or you aren’t. The whole point of this section of the law is to get people working.

So even if the Obama administration isn’t “gutting” welfare reform, it is enacting a major philosophical change, one explicitly rejected by those who passed the reform back in 1996. This new policy is a completely legitimate issue for debate in a presidential campaign, and if Romney is guilty of exaggerating the speed of the change and its scope so far, Obama is guilty of dismissing just how fundamental the change is and how far-reaching it may become.


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