Commentary: Congress must toughen up work rules for welfare

The Kansas City StarAugust 11, 2012 

Welfare reform, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, was fiercely opposed by many on the left.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it the most “brutal” law since Reconstruction. Several officials in the Clinton administration resigned in protest. The Children’s Defense Fund called it an “outrage.” The New York Times said it wasn’t reform. It was “punishment.”

But the predicted social catastrophe never happened. Instead, welfare reform became perhaps the most successful social policy of the last half-century.

Poverty in recent years has increased, thanks to the Great Recession and a still-lackluster economy. But some key indicators — including the number of welfare caseloads — remain well below the levels of the mid-1990s.

After reform, many never-married mothers entered the workforce for the first time — not only because federal cash payments were now time-limited but because of enticements such as an enhanced earnings tax credit, more access to Medicaid and more generous child-care subsidies.

“Welfare reform did create a revolution in the work experience of young single mothers,” said Gary Burtless, a labor expert at the Brookings Institution.

But now the Obama administration could be putting that record at risk. It is claiming authority to waive the law’s work requirement for able-bodied recipients — the core element of reform. Did Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius exceed her authority in issuing such a claim, as many Republicans argue?

Ron Haskins, another Brookings Institution scholar, was a Republican legislative staffer who helped draft the law. He says his first impression was that Sebelius had indeed overstepped. But after speaking with an HHS lawyer, Haskins believes the legal support may be there. Even so, he added, the administration knew the intent of Congress — that work requirements must not be waived. HHS still violated that intent without consulting the House or Senate, he said.

“It was basically a surprise.”

Sebelius, in a reply to Republican congressional critics, pointed out that many governors — including Mitt Romney of Massachusetts — had earlier requested more flexibility in carrying out the law. In fact, Sebelius wrote, what they asked was well beyond what she would permit under the recently announced waivers.

Nevertheless, Republicans are right to worry about the administration’s intent and should press legislation to ensure work requirements cannot be waived with the stroke of an executive-branch pen.

Otherwise, policy at the state level will once again become lax. Before rules were stiffened in 2005, a few states were letting recipients “work” at activities like journaling, bed rest, massage or motivational reading — policies that undermined incentives to work. A 2003 Heritage Foundation paper, quoting a study by former Clinton economist Rebecca Blank, noted that states with “strong work incentives” had greater boosts in the income of single parents with children than states with weaker rules.

Why the administration took this step is a mystery.

Work requirements in welfare are popular with voters and welfare is a chronic issue of vulnerability for Democrats, many of whom remain blissfully unfazed by concerns about government dependency. Without pressure from Republicans, they would have done nothing about welfare caseloads that had remained high even in boom times, and the growing culture of dependency implied by that pattern.

“Not to work is irresponsible,” Haskins said. “People ought to understand, even as they’re growing up, that if they want welfare they have to do something in return.”

For that reason, Haskins supports work requirements for food stamps — the issuance of which has exploded under Obama — and housing subsidies. But if you bring that up, he says, Democrats “have a fit. I think that’s a huge mistake.”

So is the administration’s attempt to do away with the welfare reform law’s most pivotal provision.

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