Published on TheHill.com on July 17, 2012
Determined to destroy Bill Clinton’s signature achievement, President Obama’s administration has opened a loophole in the 1996 welfare reform legislation big enough to make the law ineffective. Its work requirement — the central feature of the legislation — has been diluted beyond recognition by the bureaucrats at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
On Thursday of last week, HHS issued regulations that modified — gutted — the work requirement. Its new regulations allow the states to substitute education programs for work to get welfare benefits. The regs say that “vocational educational training or job search/readiness programs” “count as well” in meeting the basic condition that recipients work in order to receive welfare benefits.
The Congress specifically prohibited the use of education or training to fulfill the requirement. When it passed welfare reform, Congress expressly limited the authority of the secretary of HHS to waive the work requirement.
The Heritage Foundation explains that:
“Section 415(a)(2)(B) of the welfare reform act, now codified at 42 U.S.C. § 615(a)(2)(B), expressly states that ‘a waiver granted under section 1315 of this title [the one that HHS now claims it is acting under] or otherwise which relates to the provision of assistance under a State program funded under this part (as in effect on Sept. 30, 1996) shall not affect the applicability of section 607 of this title [which applies the work requirements] to the State.’ In short, whatever else might be said of the scope of the waiver authority, the Secretary has no lawful authority to waive the work requirements of section 607, which is what HHS is contemplating in its Memorandum.”
In the negotiations that preceded the passage of this landmark legislation — in which I participated heavily — then-Senate Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) was particularly suspicious that future HHS secretaries might dilute the work requirement, just as the administration has done. He worked overtime with counsel to make sure that education and training would not be used to substitute for the work provision. “I don’t want anyone going to a truck drivers school that advertises on a matchbook cover and avoiding work,” he told me. Now the administration has done just what Lott feared and the act prohibited.
Chairman of the House Republican Study Committee Jim Jordan (Ohio) rightly protested that the action is a “blatant violation of the law,” and Mitt Romney has attacked it, saying “the linkage of work and welfare is essential to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life.”
Heritage noted that “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. Now that the Obama administration has abolished those standards, we can expect ‘work’ in the TANF [welfare] program to mean anything but work.”
And, of course, welfare reform has been one of the most successful programs enacted in recent decades. Under its provisions, the welfare population has been cut in half while child poverty — until the current recession — dropped by one-third.
The loosened requirements on what constitutes work are of a piece with Obama’s strategy of expanding his political base by widening the dependency on government handouts. In 1980, 30 percent of all Americans received a payment from the government. In 2008, 44 percent did. Now the figure is 49 percent. At the same time, the number of working-age Americans who are out of work — voluntarily or involuntarily — has risen from 70 million in 2008 to 100 million today. Only 139 million are employed. We are rapidly becoming a nation that doesn’t work, doesn’t pay income taxes and gets entitlement checks.