Tiny Explainer: Welfare Work Requirements

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When Obama issued an executive order on welfare, what did he actually change?

Mitt Romney and his surrogates continue to claim that an executive order the Obama Administration issued in July gutted federal work requirements for welfare recipients, and that anyone can now collect a welfare check without even trying to get a job.

That's not the case. But what did Obama's executive order on welfare and work actually do?

The easiest place to begin to understand the issue is with the 1996 welfare reform law signed by President Clinton. Under that law, the federal government would no longer cut checks to welfare recipients as an entitlement like Social Security. Instead, states would get federal funds to administer their welfare caseload as they saw fit, subject to certain requirements. For example, a certain percentage of welfare recipients would have to be working or seeking work.

The law gave very specific definitions of what counted.

Recently, in response to a request from a bipartisan group of governors for more flexibility, the Obama Administration has said the federal government would consider waiving existing work participation requirements for states that were experimenting with "new, more effective ways" of helping welfare applicants find work, "particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment."

Critics of the move argue that it provides states enough leeway to water down work requirements, and that the executive branch lacks the legal authority to make the change. The administration has countered that the change is legal and gives states useful flexibility during an especially tough economy for the poorly educated.

Either way, the Obama Administration hasn't gotten rid of the work requirement or laid out a new theory of what it ought to include. It has given states the ability to seek executive branch approval for new methods. Whether the more flexible approach will prove more or less effective remains to be seen.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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