Back in the days of Bill Clinton, I got my news from National Public Radio and Rush Limbaugh. It was an interesting balance: What one covered the other trashed or ignored.
Without Rush, though, I might have been sucked in by the countless NPR stories (at least two a week) about what might happen to the poor if Republican-backed welfare reform became law. Imagine the streets of our cities lined with women, children, and minorities clutching begging bowls because they'd been turned out of their homes and had their food stamps ripped away. Meanwhile, Democrats were making impassioned speeches on the floor of the House and Senate about the uncaring party in power, speeches as hyperbolic then as they are today, and as memorable as a classified ad. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) passed, Clinton signed it, and "welfare as we know it" ended.
Strangely, our cities were not swamped with breadlines or choked by people sleeping on subway grates. "Reform" actually reformed, for a change. Not perfectly, and not without leaks and cheats, but the results made their own case, as shown by a 2003 Heritage Foundation report. Overall poverty, child poverty, and black child poverty declined, as did sob stories on NPR.
Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a quiet little memorandum to the states about changes in TANF requirements. The most significant change is a policy for waiving work requirements, the crucial element to real welfare reform. The stated purpose is to "consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF," supposedly determined after consulting with states, tribes, and territories. As George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary of HHS explained in a letter, "During those consultations, many jurisdictions expressed a strong interest in greater flexibility" for interpreting the work requirement. "In the past," wrote Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector, "state bureaucrats have attempted to define activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and bed rest as 'work.'" Is that the kind of flexibility we're talking about?
HHS gets its waiver-granting right from a "flexible" interpretation of Section 1115 of the Social Security law. But Section 1115 applies to specific parts of specific laws, and the TANF work requirement isn't one of them. I seem to remember that the U.S. Constitution defines the role of the executive branch as seeing that laws duly passed by Congress are faithfully carried out. This executive seems interested only in carrying out the laws he likes. Others can be quietly hamstrung.
Here's a sob story that wasn't: Under the old TANF, my niece, a single mother of two, took advantage of tuition credits, got an associate degree, and has worked with some regularity ever since. It wasn't a cure-all-she has struggled with depression and alcoholism-but for the most part she's been able to hold down a paying job. And what she lost in ease, she gained in self-respect. That's a measure that won't show up on any chart, but one that's likely to go down.