Skip to content

Making Welfare Work—Again

March 11, 2013

In the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign, the Obama administration announced it would ease up on the work requirements that made the 1996 reform of the nation’s welfare law such a success.

At the time, congressional Republicans denounced the move as “gutting” the law and vowed they would not let it stand. On Wednesday the House Committee of Ways and Means took the first steps toward denying the administration the ability to allow states to waive work requirements for welfare recipients, approving, by a vote of 21 to 14, Rep. Dave Reichert’s H.R. 890, the Preserving Work Requirements for Welfare Programs Act of 2013.

As Michigan Republican Rep. Dave Camp, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee said in his opening statement, “Work requirements were central to the success of the bipartisan 1996 welfare reforms, and they have served those seeking to enter the workforce very well. Those reforms led to more work, more earnings, less welfare dependence, and less poverty among low-income Americans.”

It’s hard to argue that the reforms have been a success. Even in the jobless Obama recovery, the requirement that people engage in real work has reduced caseloads by more than half. According to statistics cited by Camp, the number of single mothers employed rose “by 15 percent from 1996 to 2000, and it remains higher today than in 1996, even after two recessions.  At the same time, welfare caseloads have declined by a remarkable 57 percent.”

Until Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services made its move, it was accepted as fact that the executive branch could not act unilaterally to waive the work requirements. Hungry for votes, the current administration attempted to exceed its authority for political reasons and, in the opinion of some welfare experts, acted illegally.

Camp and his colleagues on Ways and Means are trying to put things right. The Obama administration has tried to gloss over the whole thing by announcing it would only accept requests for waivers that made the work requirements tougher—but there is nothing in current law that prevents them from doing that already. It is only waivers that would weaken the work requirements—the kind contemplated by the Health and Human Services “guidance”—that are prohibited.

“It’s time to put this waiver debate behind us so we can get back to making progress together to strengthen the TANF program, including its work and State funding requirements,” Camp said. Hopefully the full House will act on the bill quickly and send it over to the Senate, so that the whole issue can be clarified and written into law once the president puts his signature on it.