Endangered Welfare Reform: Is the Obama administration targeting the most successful poverty-reduction program in decades?

Over at City Journal, Kay S. Hymowitz reports on the debate over a controversial Health and Human Services “Information Memorandum”:

When HHS asks for innovative strategies for “helping families succeed in employment,” does that mean more failed job-training programs and services of dubious relevance? There’s good reason to think so. Even after welfare reform was passed, states continued to demonstrate unusual creativity in defining work—excuse me, “work activities.” A 2005 General Accounting Office study of ten states found that five considered “caring for a disabled dependent” a work activity (it was categorized as a form of community service); six included substance-abuse treatment, three accepted domestic-violence counseling, and five accepted English as a Second Language classes. So would drug counseling count as a strategy to “succeed in employment” and be acceptable grounds for a waiver? It wouldn’t be surprising.

Not all reformers are so sure that the Obama administration wants to define welfare reform down. Ron Haskins, who worked on the 1996 law as a House Ways and Means Committee staffer and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institute, believes that the “work-firsters” have won the ideological battle. Given the enduring popularity of the reform, he thinks, the administration is unlikely to risk softening work rules and expanding welfare. At any rate, “No state wants their rolls to grow,” he says.

But if the HHS document is indeed trying to loosen work requirements, it may actually defy the law. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, who helped write the 1996 reform bill, argues that it specifically denies waivers for work requirements. Congressional Republicans have also accused HHS of a “blatant violation of the law.” Many lawyers agree. They view the memorandum as an executive end run around Congress, much like the administration’s recent executive order liberalizing deportation policy for young illegals. Douglas Besharov, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a major actor in reform circles, doesn’t mince words: “The intent of the administration is to change the way welfare reform is operated. The domestic policy staff doesn’t believe in ‘work first’; they want education, job training, and support. If they had their way, they would have gotten those provisions in the reauthorization. Now they see they will not control the House and it will be impossible to get through their policies.”

Thus the “executive overreaching,” as Besharov puts it, that, if done by a Republican, would lead to protests in the streets. If he’s right, we can bid farewell to welfare reform, the most successful attempt to reduce poverty in half a century.


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