Welfare Program Controversy All Politics – Not Substance

Don Friedman August 02, 2012

On July 12, the Federal Department of Health and Human Services presented states with an exciting opportunity by offering to waive some of the most restrictive federal welfare rules for states that propose programs that would more effectively accomplish the goals of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) law that enacted Welfare Reform.

Without venturing  into the endless debate about whether the 1996 welfare reform was a success (I think accounts of its spectacular success are, at best, seriously overblown), the fact is that many states, red and blue, have told HHS that they could develop more effective programs if they had greater operational flexibility than current law permits.  For example, TANF law requires states to have specified percentages of TANF adults participating in a very short list of work-related activities, the activities are very narrowly defined, and there is little leeway to serve clients with disabilities.  In short, the law emphasizes compliance with a multitude of rules that have little to do with helping recipients move from welfare to decent-paying employment.

The HHS announcement (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/policy/im-ofa/2012/im201203/im201203.html) demonstrated that they were in no way deviating from the mandates of the TANF law.  States seeking waivers must propose a pilot project that will be rigorously and regularly evaluated, and that will help parents “…successfully prepare for, find and retain employment…” States that fail to show adequate progress in achieving that goal will face termination of the waiver.

HHS offered some helpful examples of the kinds of programs they envision.  These might include state initiatives that would:

  • Measure success not by client participation in activities of often limited value, but rather by actual employment outcomes.  Remarkably, the current system pays scant attention to how and what recipients are doing after leaving the welfare system.
  • Involve collaboration between state workforce or post-secondary education systems that would enable clients to “…combine learning and work…”  The rigid work-first philosophy behind the 1996 welfare reforms has meant that in an era where ever higher levels of education are required for most employment, the welfare system often makes it nearly impossible for recipients to pursue educational goals.
  • Explore more effective strategies for serving people with disabilities, including more appropriate ways to measure participation and outcomes.


Despite the careful crafting of this announcement, it nevertheless provoked an outraged response from some quarters.  Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation attacked the Obama administration for the “gutting” of welfare reform, and within days, Orrin Hatch in the Senate and Dave Camp in the House introduced legislation barring such waivers.  The issue quickly became a presidential campaign issue as the Romney team (erroneously) derided the administration for eliminating the welfare work rules.


The great irony is that the HHS action promotes two objectives that seem custom-tailored to conservative values:  (1) moving TANF recipients from welfare to work and (2) affording states greater flexibility in operating their welfare programs.  Instead, this has been characterized as an insidious undermining of welfare reform and its emphasis on work.

What comes next is not entirely certain.  I would hope that many states  (including New York), recognizing the potential for bold innovation, will come up with creative, robust proposals that will quiet the opposition and, more significantly, will enhance the lives of some of the poorest Americans.

More reading:

A good summary of the arguments in favor, but also with food for thought about how states might craft their proposals, from LaDonna Pavetti at CBPP.   (link to) http://www.offthechartsblog.org/5-ways-waivers-will-strengthen-welfare-reform/

Washington Post “WonkBlog” discussing Secy. Sebelius’s response to Orrin Hatch (Senate Finance) and Dave Camp (House Ways & Means), who had written angry letters to HHS about the waiver program, (link to) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/wp/2012/07/19/the-obama-administration-fires-back-on-welfare/.