On March 13, the House voted to restore the work requirements that the Obama Administration attempted to gut from the 1996 welfare reform law. The Preserving Work Requirements for Welfare Programs Act of 2013 was introduced in late February by a group of conservatives to undo the Administration’s actions.
The 1996 welfare reform introduced work requirements into the largest federal cash assistance welfare program, replacing the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The reform required able-bodied adults to work, prepare for work, or look for work in order to receive benefits. Though the law received much criticism from the left, it worked: Stagnant welfare rolls decreased by half within five years of the law’s implementation, employment among low-income Americans soared, and child poverty rates plummeted.
Even though the work requirements have been a success, liberals have attempted to water them down. Then, last summer, the Obama Administration attempted to completely eliminate them. In July, the Administration released a directive from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announcing that states would be able to waive the law’s work requirements.
The Obama Administration has asserted the need for states to waive the work requirements in order to strengthen them. However, Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT) testified in a House Ways and Means Committee hearing that waivers would actually do just the opposite, by “undermining key provisions of welfare reform.”
Heritage’s Robert Rector explains that the Administration’s action weakened “the already lenient work participation rates,” broadened “the definition of ‘work activities,’” and replaced “the requirement that recipients engage in work activities for 20–30 hours per week with looser standards.” These changes are likely to increase the number of welfare recipients who receive benefits without working.
In his floor speech on the day of the vote, Representative Tom Cole (R–OK) highlighted the success of TANF, noting that the employment rate for single mothers in 2010 was higher than it was in 1996, despite the higher unemployment rate in 2010. He went on the say that until the current Administration, no one had ever attempted to implement waivers, and that the Administration should not be allowed to waive away with a memo what lawmakers did through the legislative process.
This executive overreach by the Administration completely undermines the purpose of welfare reform. Instead of moving people to self-sufficiency, this action only creates a barrier to encouraging personal responsibility. TANF work requirements should be restored and extended to other government welfare programs, such as food stamps, one of the largest of the government’s 80 welfare programs.
Helping the poor should not mean simply providing aid, but rather helping those in need, who are able, to achieve independence. The Administration should not be able to turn back the clock and undo successful reform. Instead of taking two steps back to the old welfare system of dependency on government, it should be designed to move people into stable lives. It is time for welfare reform.