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Reichert Opening Statement: Hearing on Waiving Work Requirements in the TANF Program

February 28, 2013

Today’s hearing is on the Obama Administration’s July 2012 proposal to allow States to waive work and activity requirements for welfare recipients, often simply called welfare’s “work requirements.”

Those work requirements originated in the 1996 welfare reform law, which passed on a bipartisan basis after literally years of debate.  President Clinton campaigned in 1992 on a pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” and Republicans in Congress took that seriously.  The landmark 1996 reforms expected welfare recipients to work or get education and training. The law also capped funding while providing states new flexibility, and it included time limits on benefits so welfare was no longer a way of life.  

The years following reform witnessed some of the greatest progress against poverty and dependence in our nation’s history.  After reform, we saw:

  • sharp increases in work and earnings by single mothers;
  • a 30 percent drop in poverty among female-headed families with children; and
  • record declines in welfare dependence, with the TANF rolls remaining 57 percent below pre-reform levels even after the 2007 recession.

The idea that welfare recipients should work for benefits remains extraordinarily popular: 83 percent of Americans support requiring welfare recipients to work for their benefits.

These are some of the reasons why so many were shocked last summer when the Obama Administration suggested States could apply to waive these work requirements for the first time.  

Current law, Congressional intent, historical precedent, and expert reviews all confirm HHS does not have the authority to do that.  A November 1996 Ways and Means summary of the new reforms said it best: “Waivers granted after the date of enactment may not override provisions of the TANF law that concern mandatory work requirements.”

The reason why Congress said work requirements couldn’t be waived is simple: it wanted strong work requirements.  And regardless of what the Administration suggests, simple logic confirms States don’t need waivers to strengthen work requirements, only to weaken them.    

The House acted in September to repeal the Administration’s waiver policy.  Unfortunately, the Senate didn’t follow suit.  Today’s hearing allows us to review this issue as we consider the next extension of TANF required before the end of March.  I believe we should make clear that Congress meant what it said about welfare work requirements – what works is work and aggressively preparing for work, and the Administration can’t unilaterally waive these critical features of welfare reform.  

If anything, as we will hear from several witnesses, we should be exploring how to apply these work requirements to other programs, so States help more benefit recipients work or prepare for work.  

That’s the best – and only real – path out of poverty.