Yes, Pres. Obama Gutted Welfare Reform

In the midst of the presidential campaign, Heritage’s Robert Rector reminds us that less than two months ago, President Obama gutted the landmark 1996 welfare reform law:

At the core of the 1996 law are “participation rate requirements” that ensure that 30 to 40 percent of able-bodied TANF recipients must engage in any of 12 different “work activities” for 20 to 30 hours per week. The administration would exempt states from this requirement and encourage them to operate under alternative performance measures. For example, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said that to bypass federal workfare requirements, a state would have to “move at least 20percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance.” 

At first blush, a 20percent increase in “employment exits” sounds impressive. But what does it mean? In the typical state, about 1.5percent of the TANF caseload leaves the rolls each month because of employment. To be exempt from the federal work requirement, a state would have to raise that number to about 1.8percent of caseload. This is a minuscule change; as the economy improves, this small increase will occur automatically in most states. Moreover, states keep imperfect employment records of those leaving TANF; many states could easily achieve the required increase through modest improvements in recordkeeping alone.

As pointed out on Senator Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) blog, “Dramatic rule changes that transform the heart of a law should not be done unilaterally by a government agency. Only members of Congress have the power to write legislation. Unaccountable bureaucrats don’t have the power to rewrite it later.”

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