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Orrin Hatch (Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Welfare unreformed

Congressional Republicans try to block easing welfare work requirements

Issue: "Praying for rain," Aug. 11, 2012

Congressional Republicans on July 18 introduced legislation to block the Obama administration's recent decision to ease long-standing welfare work requirements-six days after the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a new directive informing states they may request waivers from the work mandates written into the landmark 1996 welfare reform law. That law moved 2.8 million families off welfare rolls.

"Gutting welfare work requirements with the stroke of a pen and without congressional input is simply unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the sponsor of the bill, also introduced in the House, that would stop the executive branch from unilaterally weakening the welfare work rules. But the measure faces an uncertain future in a Senate controlled by Democrats.

Sixteen years ago the work obligation became the heart of the reform movement designed to end welfare's status as an open-ended entitlement by requiring those seeking welfare payments to devote at least 20-30 hours per week working or looking for work. The results were significant: increased employment for single mothers, 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. Before the Clinton-era reform law, individuals remained on welfare for an average of 13 years. Today the average is less than two years. 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, now with the Heritage Foundation. "Saying that people do not have to engage in work steals away dignity from the welfare recipient."

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A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office highlighted the need for stringent work requirements. The GAO found that numerous states had defined as work for those seeking welfare such activities as bed rest, personal care, 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.

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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