What Obama Really Did to Welfare Reform

Republicans charge the president with 'gutting' the landmark 1990s legislation. That's hardly the case -- but the proposed change could give more people access to benefits.

The story so far in the 90s-tinged fight over welfare reform in the current campaign is this: A few weeks ago, the Obama administration issued a memo telling states they could apply to have some aspects of the law's work requirements waived. Some on the right were outraged by the supposed attempt to weaken the law's emphasis on getting people off welfare and into employment, which the administration denied would result from its order. This week, Mitt Romney's campaign turned the controversy into an ad that claims, "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

The administration disputes that characterization, and the memo in question explicitly requires states that apply for waivers to propose plans that would increase, not decrease, the amount of welfare recipients working. But if that's the case, why waive any aspect of the work requirements? What, exactly, would the waivers in question -- none of which have yet been issued -- do?

The answer is that the states, and the Obama administration, do want to be able to give benefits to more people who aren't working as currently defined. But they say the problem is that the current definitions are too restrictive, and that loosening them would lead to more people getting jobs and being self-sufficient in the long run.

"The law sets forward a very complicated measure of work participation that pretty much all sides agree should be changed," said Liz Schott, an expert on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. "It's too complicated and it doesn't measure the right things."

Under welfare reform, to get their block grants of federal TANF money, states have to show that 50 percent of welfare-receiving families -- and 90 percent of two-parent families -- are involved in work activities. What constitutes "work activities" is not necessarily a job; training, job-search assistance, volunteer work, vocational and skills training, and some forms of education and child-care work are included. But being counted as working is not as simple as checking one of those boxes; it's a complicated formula that allows some activities only for a certain number of hours per week, or a certain number of weeks per year.

Those advocating more flexibility say they could get more people into jobs if they had more freedom to get them there in the time allotted, generally two years from the start of receiving assistance. Utah, under Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, was one of five states to ask the federal government for more flexibility in determining work participation; the others were Republican-led Nevada and Democrat-governed California, Connecticut and Minnesota. "The expectation to participate fully in specific activities leading to employment is not the issue," Utah's director of workforce services wrote to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. "Full engagement is a powerful process that can lead to work. It is the narrow definitions of what counts and the burdensome documentation and verification processes that are not helpful."

Nevada, in its letter to HHS, had some specific suggestions. Instead of benchmarking one-parent versus two-parent families, its director of health and human services wrote, why not sort families according to the barriers they face -- obstacles such as disabilities, lack of education or language skills? The state also proposed to "exempt the hardest-to-employ population for a period of time (i.e. six months) to allow time for their barriers to be addressed and their household circumstances stabilized" and to "index TANF performance measures to the state's unemployment rate."

The Republican architects of the welfare law, though, say they made the work requirements ironclad and unwaivable because of the potential for abuse. The predecessor to TANF, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, actually had a work requirement too, but it was so loose and laxly enforced as to be basically meaningless. And prior to welfare reform's reauthorization in 2005, a GAO report found some states were taking liberties with their definitions of work activities to include "personal care" activities like writing in a journal or getting a massage. (The new HHS memo explicitly forbids such redefinitions.)

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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