Written by Robert Rector and Kiki Bradley
Thursday, July 12, the Obama Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released an official policy directive rewriting the welfare reform law of 1996. The new policy guts the federal work requirements that were the foundation of the reform law. The Obama directive bludgeons the letter and intent of the actual reform legislation.
Welfare reform replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The underlying concept of welfare reform was that able-bodied adults should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving welfare aid.
The welfare reform law is often characterized as simply giving state governments more flexibility in operating welfare programs. This is a serious misunderstanding. While new law (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996) did grants states more flexibility in some respects, the core of the act was the creation of rigorous new federal work standards that state governments were required to implement.
The welfare reform law was very successful. In the four decades prior to welfare reform, the welfare caseload never experienced a significant decline. But, in the four years after welfare reform, the caseload dropped by nearly half. Employment surged and child poverty among affected groups plummeted. The driving force behind these improvements was the rigorous new federal work requirements contained in the TANF law.
Today the Obama Administration issued a new directive stating that the traditional TANF work requirements can be waived or overridden by a legal device called the section 1115 waiver authority under the Social Security law (42 U.S.C. 1315).
Section 1115 states that “the Secretary may waive compliance with any of the requirements” of specified parts of various laws. But this is not an open-ended authority: Any provision of law that can be waived under section 1115 must be listed in section 1115 itself. The work provisions of the TANF program are contained in section 407 (entitled, appropriately, “mandatory work requirements”). Critically, this section, as well as most other TANF requirements, are deliberately not listed in section 1115; they are not waiveable.
In establishing TANF, Congress deliberately exempted or shielded nearly all of the TANF program from the section 1115 waiver authority. They did not want the law to be rewritten at the whim of Health and Human Services (HHS) bureaucrats. Of the roughly 35 sections of the TANF law, only one is listed as waiveable under section 1115. This is section 402.
Section 402 describes state plans—reports that state governments must file to HHS describing the actions they will undertake to comply with the many requirements established in the other sections of the TANF law. The authority to waive section 402 provides the option to waive state reporting requirements only, not to overturn the core requirements of the TANF program contained in the other sections of the TANF law.
The new Obama dictate asserts that because the work requirements, established in section 407, are mentioned as an item that state governments must report about in section 402, all the work requirements can be waived. This removes the core of the TANF program; TANF becomes a blank slate that HHS bureaucrats and liberal state bureaucrats can rewrite at will.
In a December 2001 document, “Welfare Reform Waivers and TANF,” the non-partisan Congressional Research Service clarified that the limited authority to waive state reporting requirement in section 402 does not grant authority to override work and other major requirements in the other sections of the TANF law (sections that were deliberately not listed under the section 1115 waiver authority):
Technically, there is waiver authority for TANF state plan requirement; however, [the] major TANF requirements are not in state plans. Effectively, there are no TANF waivers.
Obviously, if the Congress had wanted HHS to be able to waive the TANF work requirements laid out in section 407, it would have listed that section as waiveable under section 1115. It did not do that.
In the past, state bureaucrats have attempted to define activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and bed rest as “work.” These dodges were blocked by the federal work standards. Now that the Obama Administration has abolished those standards, we can expect “work” in the TANF program to mean anything but work.
The new welfare dictate issued by the Obama Administration clearly guts the law. The Administration tramples on the actual legislation passed by Congress and seeks to impose its own policy choices—a pattern that has become all too common in this Administration.
The result is the end of welfare reform.
Robert Rector is a leading national authority on poverty, the U.S.welfare system and immigration and is a Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow. Dubbed the "intellectual godfather" of welfare reform by National Review Editor Rich Lowry, Rector concentrates on a range of issues relating to welfare reform, family breakdown and America's various social ills.
Katherine "Kiki" Bradley focuses on family and societal issues, with particular attention to welfare policy, as a Research Fellow in The Heritage Foundation's DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.