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HHS Gets Waivers Right – on Child Welfare, not TANF

October 04, 2012

Washington, DC – On Thursday, October 4, Michigan announced that the Federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has approved their application to operate a child welfare demonstration project to test ways to better prevent child maltreatment.  Michigan is one of nine states approved to operate a demonstration project.  States receive Federal funding to assist in the operation of their foster care programs, and these funds are usually limited to paying for services once children have been removed from their homes.  However, these demonstration projects will let Michigan and other states use Federal funds in ways designed to prevent the need to place children in foster care in the first place.  Specifically, Michigan will be allowed to waive some Federal foster care spending requirements in three counties and focus their efforts on children under age six who are at the highest risk of maltreatment.  Once identified, these children and their families will receive in-home services to prevent the need to place them in foster care.

The experience of Michigan and other States in applying for child welfare waivers is a textbook example of how such policy is supposed to work.  In June 2011, the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, which has jurisdiction over child welfare programs, held a hearing that explored the merits of granting the Administration authority to waive child welfare requirements, initiating an open process allowing interested organizations and the public to share their views and have an impact on subsequent legislation.  Bipartisan legislation permitting child welfare waivers was then introduced by former Human Resources Subcommittee Chair Geoff Davis (R-KY) and Ranking Member Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) in August 2011.  A revised bill was introduced by Reps. Davis and Doggett in September, which was then reviewed and approved in a public meeting by the Full Ways and Means Committee.  This legislation was then debated and passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on September 21, 2011 by a vote of 395-25.  The Senate then debated and passed the bill the next day by voice vote.  Finally, President Obama signed the legislation into law on September 30, 2011 (P.L. 112–34).
In contrast, the Obama Administration in July 2012 simply claimed it had the authority to waive work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program.  The Administration reached this conclusion absent proposing legislation to this effect and despite the fact that previous Administrations expressed they did not have authority to do so, according to research conducted by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO).  Further, both the GAO and the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) have determined that the Administration’s July 2012 action constitutes a rule that must be submitted to Congress before taking effect.  Resolutions disapproving of the Administration’s rule waiving the TANF work requirements were introduced in the House and Senate in September 2012, and the House approved its disapproval resolution on September 20, 2012 in a bipartisan vote of 250-164.  Action on the Senate disapproval resolution is currently pending in the Senate.

Speaking about the HHS announcement of these new child welfare waivers, Chairman Camp said, “These new child welfare demonstration projects are an example of how Congress chose to provide states with flexibility to test new approaches to solving a problem.  In properly applying the law when it comes to child welfare waivers, however, the Obama Administration is also showing how far they have strayed from the law when it comes to their recent efforts to waive work requirements for welfare recipients.  Instead of working with Congress to change the law, as happened in 2011 with child welfare waiver authority, the Obama Administration simply announced that they would waive work requirements for welfare recipients unilaterally.  Not only does this violate the intent of the 1996 welfare reform law, it also ignores the legal requirement that such a proposal must be submitted to Congress.  This Administration should rescind their flawed rule waiving welfare work requirements and engage Congress in a discussion of how we can move more welfare recipients into work – working with Congress to do so, not rewriting Federal law through Administrative fiat.”
Information on Michigan’s child welfare demonstration project is available here.