With new changes, Obama administration accused of 'gutting' Clinton-era welfare reform

New HHS waivers focus on job requirements in 1996 Welfare Reform Act

Published: Friday, July 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Clinton prepares to sign legislation in the Rose Garden of the White House Thursday, Aug. 22, 1996, overhauling America's welfare system. Visible, from left, are former welfare recipients Lillie Harden, of Little Rock, Ark., and Janet Ferrel, of West Virginia, Vice President Gore, West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and former welfare recipient Penelope Howard, of Delaware.

Associated Press

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In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act into law, emphasizing work rules, time limits on cash assistance and "creating a new beginning for millions of Americans," he wrote in a 2006 New York Times op-ed piece.

Now, President Barack Obama is being accused of "gutting" that welfare reform legislation after his Department of Health and Human Services released a memo Thursday announcing changes to the program.

According to the memo, new waivers relating to the work participation requirements will authorize states to "test alternative and innovative strategies, policies and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."

"States led the way on welfare reform in the 1990s — testing new approaches and learning what worked and what did not," Earl Johnson, director of the Office of Family Assistance, said in the HHS memo. "The secretary is interested in using her authority to approve waiver demonstrations to challenge states to engage in a new round of innovation that seeks to find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment."

According to The Associated Press, states will not be able to escape the work requirements of the landmark 1996 federal welfare reform law, but they may get federal approval to try to accomplish the same goals by using different methods than those spelled out in the legislation.

The White House's Office of Management and Budget and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius approved the new rule.

Mickey Kaus at The Daily Caller posted his quick reactions to the news Thursday night, saying the move flies in the face of 1996 work requirements that were intended to signal that no-strings welfare was over.

"To the extent the administration's action erodes the actual and perceived toughness of the work requirements, which it does, it sends the opposite and wrong signal," Kaus wrote.

According to Kaus, the memo's stated goals suggest job prep, counseling and training will be used to loosen the statutory work requirements to allow extended training periods, multi-year career pathways or a "comprehensive universal engagement system" that Kaus said sounds like a "stay-on-the-dole-while-we-keep-you-busy-with-anything-other-than-actual-work system."

"In the past, state bureaucrats have attempted to define activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers and bed rest as 'work.' These dodges were blocked by the federal work standards," Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley wrote at National Review. "Now that the Obama administration has abolished those standards, we can expect 'work' in the (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program to mean anything but work. The new welfare dictate issued by the Obama administration clearly guts the law."

The president will have a hard time selling the move if his opponents raise the "welfare" issue, where taxpayers give individuals benefits that people who don't go on welfare can't afford, Kaus warned.

David Weigel, writing at Slate, said that while the change may not have "gutted" welfare reform, "it's at least cracked open the door for the people who might gut it."

"The only non-'gutting' theory I can come up with gives HHS rather a lot of credit," Weigel wrote. "It cites waiver memos from Utah and Tennessee for proof that the states are ready for more flexibility. Those states aren't likely to weaken the standards of TANF work programs, are they? But I want to see what other states try and do here, and how they interpret this."

Republicans were quick to criticize the move, with the president's challenger Mitt Romney calling it "completely misdirected."

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