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Hatch (Associated Press/Photo by Colin E. Braley)

Welfare rewind

Poverty | GOP lawmakers try to stop the Obama administration's rewrite of welfare work requirements

WASHINGTON-Congressional Republicans on Wednesday introduced legislation to block the Obama administration's recent decision to waive long-standing welfare work requirements.

Last week President Obama's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a new policy directive easing the work mandate that was written into the landmark 1996 welfare reform law. That requirement states that welfare recipients must be employed or prove they're looking for work as a condition for receiving aid.

But the HHS decision signaled to state agencies disbursing the funds that some of those requirements can now be bypassed. Conservative groups from The Heritage Foundation to Focus on the Family erupted in protest over the change, arguing that it would undermine the reform law that has moved 2.8 million families off of welfare rolls.

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Before the 1996 reform law, individuals remained on welfare for an average of 13 years, creating a plague of government dependency for millions of Americans. Today the average is less than two years. But many fiscal conservatives fear that number may rise again in the aftermath of the Obama administration's decision.

"They will be recreating the old system that said, 'It's fine if you spend a lifetime on welfare and in poverty,'" said Kiki Bradley, the former associate director of the federal welfare program created in 1996 and now with The Heritage Foundation. "Saying that people do not have to engage in work steals away dignity from the welfare recipient."

The bill introduced Wednesday by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would prohibit the executive branch from unilaterally granting itself the authority to exempt states from enforcing the work requirements.

"Gutting welfare work requirements with the stroke of a pen and without congressional input is simply unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand," Hatch said.

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., is introducing companion legislation in the House.

Nearly 16 years ago, the work obligation became the heart of the welfare reform movement designed to end welfare's status as an open-ended entitlement that created dependency on government. This requirement stated that those seeking welfare payments had to devote at least 20 to 30 hours per week either working or looking for work.

The results were significant: increased employment for single mothers, a reduction in the child poverty rates in female-led households, the lowest poverty rate for black children in U.S. history, and a welfare caseload that had been cut nearly in half four years after the law was enacted. Bill Clinton, who as president in 1996 vetoed the legislation twice before signing it, now lists it as one of his administration's biggest accomplishments.

Last Thursday's declaration by HHS, which says that states can waive the work requirements, directly contradicts language inserted by Congress in the law that was designed to prevent portions of it from being exempted by bureaucrats. The Obama administration move also ignores a 2001 report by the Congressional Research Service confirming that federal government agencies did not have the power to override these work requirements.

A 2005 report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office highlighted the danger behind easing these stringent work requirement elements of welfare reform. The GAO had found that numerous states had tried to define as work such activities as bed rest, personal care activities, massage, exercise, journaling, motivational reading, smoking cessation, weight loss promotion, participating in parent-teacher meetings, and helping a friend or relative with household tasks and errands. The federal work standards now in jeopardy blocked such efforts.

Shortly after HHS released its new policy, Camp and Hatch wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking her to explain how she has the authority to implement such changes, but Sebelius has yet to respond.

Welfare spending has increased under President Obama, with the government spending nearly $1 trillion each year on welfare programs. During the next 10 years, welfare spending is projected to cost taxpayers $10.3 trillion.

According to Camp, the welfare rule rewrite is just the latest effort by the Obama administration to implement new policy on controversial issues while bypassing Congress. Similar unilateral changes have been taken this year in immigration, education, energy, and marriage policies.

"The Obama administration has once again overstepped its bounds," Camp said.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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