Republicans are pouncing on the Obama administration’s directive to grant states more flexibility with implementing welfare reform, accusing the president of “gutting” a central pillar of the 1996 law that ended welfare as an entitlement.
The reality of the president’s move is not so simple.
The law, a product of painstaking negotiations between President Clinton and the Gingrich-led Republican Congress, slapped time limits and workforce participation requirements as eligibility criteria for welfare recipients. Despite fierce early protests from progressives, the law went on to be heralded across the spectrum for the reduction in welfare caseloads and poverty that followed, although it hit the poor hard in the wake of the Great Recession.
Last Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would grant states waivers from work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, in order to let them “test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”
The move rankled conservative intellectuals, who questioned its legality and lamented that it leaves the law toothless. Top Republicans and their presidential nominee Mitt Romney reflected that anger, accusing Obama of wanting to make people dependent on government handouts.
“By gutting the work requirements in President Clinton’s signature welfare reform law, President Obama is admitting his economic policies have failed,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in a statement. “Welfare reform was an historic, bipartisan success — this move by the Obama administration is a partisan disgrace.”
The outrage continued Sunday as Republican governors, who have been vocal guardians of states’ rights under Obama, expressed anger with the president for granting them more power over how to implement welfare reform in their states.
“It’s absolutely a terrible step in the wrong direction,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) on “Fox News Sunday.” Asked whether his view contradicts the conservative mantra that states know better than Washington bureaucrats how to govern, he changed the topic to Medicaid and bashed Obama’s “entitlement mentality.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) agreed with Branstad, declaring, “We don’t want people to stay on welfare, we want them to get back to work.”
The announcement affirms that the federal government will deny or rescind waivers to states it decides are weakening, rather than strengthening, the employment-boosting goals of the welfare reform law. The administration’s move is consistent with Obama’s push to grant states broad flexibility in various areas — including health care and education — to seek alternate strategies to achieve outcomes designated by federal law.
The liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities called the directive “a major step forward” and predicted it “will strengthen welfare reform and the ability of states to move parents from welfare to work.”
The Center’s LaDonna Pavetti argued in a blog post that the directive will lead to new, innovative strategies to encourage work, giving states the freedom to focus more on improve workforce skills and utilize their resources in the most appropriate ways. Pavetti said the accountability framework is strong enough to shut down waivers for states who seek to evade the welfare law’s goals.
The irony of conservatives defending federal power was enough to also invite liberal mockery.
“Sounds to me like [the conservative critics have] a problem with leaving things to the states and want a one-size fits all imposed by the Washington bureaucrats who think they know better than anyone else,” said progressive economist Dean Baker. “Seriously, this is an issue about perhaps giving the states a bit more leeway. [Republicans are] obviously worried that the voters in some states might be too generous to poor people. Life is tough.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.