Did Obama Administration Really ‘Repeal’ or ‘Gut’ Welfare Reform?

August 20, 2012

Did the Obama administration really “repeal” or “gut” welfare reform?  A lot of people are arguing about it lately.

The short answer appears to be Yes, with qualifications.

Even at Slate, no right-wing rag, David Weigel writes,

Has the HHS “gutted” welfare reform?

It’s at least cracked open the door for the people who might gut it. . . .

. . . The only non-“gutting” theory I can come up gives HHS rather a lot of credit.

He links to Mickey Kaus (who he says “owns this beat”; whom Newsbusters describes as a “[p]ro-welfare reform Democratic journalist”), who writes,

1. The guts of the 1996 welfare reform were a) welfare was ended as an “entitlement” (controlled by the feds) and transferred to the states, as a “block grant” subject to certain requirements; and b) one of those requirements was that a certain percentage of each state’s welfare caseload had to be working or preparing for work. A great deal of effort was put into defining what qualified as work, and making sure that work actually meant work and not the various BS activities (including BS training activities) the welfare bureaucracies often preferred to substitute for work.

2. As of several years ago, the details of these work requirements turned out to matter less than the general signal they sent, that no-strings welfare was over and even low-income single moms were supposed to work. As a result, the welfare rolls shrank so rapidly (roughly by half) that many states never faced the detailed work requirements (since they got credit for everyone who left welfare).

3. But of course the work requirements were part of what sent that general “signal.”

4. To the extent the administration’s action erodes the actual and perceived toughness of the work requirements, which it does, it sends the opposite and wrong signal.

. . .

14. That said, Obama’s HHS doesn’t take us all the way back to pre-1996 days.  If today’s action stands—surviving legal as well as political challenge—it will allow HHS to let those states that don’t really want to require welfare recipients to work to not require them to work. Before 1996, HHS would be preventing states that did want to require welfare recipients to work from requiring them to work. Still a big difference between then and today. But not as much as between then and yesterday.

For more relevant history and analysis, read the whole thing.

Jim Geraghty comments further.  Excerpt:

Some of this has been covered by Mickey Kaus and Dave Weigel, but it’s worth discussing this further as much of the debate on the change to welfare is going to be in the “no, we didn’t”/”yes, you did” tone.

. . .

Sometimes a “job readiness program” will include teaching self-evidently useful skills like resume writing and techniques for job interviews… and sometimes it will include “self-esteem building” and “instruction on appropriate attire.” A program designed to build up the self-esteem of welfare recipients might be a genuine tool to help them develop the skills to find and hold a job… or it might just be taxpayer-funded happy talk. Either way, the idea of this being an acceptable substitute for the work requirements in place since 1996 seems… dubious. (Then there are the examples of waste and fraud in these programs, spending funds on “free lunches, hotels, flowers, event tickets.”)

. . .

So even if the Obama administration isn’t “gutting” welfare reform, it is enacting a major philosophical change, one explicitly rejected by those who passed the reform back in 1996. This new policy is a completely legitimate issue for debate in a presidential campaign, and if Romney is guilty of exaggerating the speed of the change and its scope so far, Obama is guilty of dismissing just how fundamental the change is and how far-reaching it may become.

(Hyperlinks in original.)

Also at National Review Online:  See also Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley.  Normally I think people should focus on policies and their effects, rather than get all hung up worrying about whether political actors have good or bad motives, but Stanley Kurtz argues that there is a place for considering motives here:

In 1996, the year President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, Obama became a member of a leftist third party called the New Party. The Obama campaign denied this in 2008, and continues to deny it today, although contemporaneous documents now definitively prove it. The core purpose of the New Party was to pull the country to the left of the Clinton Democrats. Opposition to the welfare reform act virtually defined the New Party’s position.

. . . Obama was willing to go so far as to join a leftist third party at the very moment when Clinton signed onto work requirements for welfare. Opposition to Clinton’s position was at the heart of Obama’s move. That leftist background goes a long way toward explaining why Obama would risk stirring up a national controversy over changes to a welfare reform bill that the public was happy with.

Much of the debate over the claims in Romney’s new ad hinge on what you think Obama’s long-term intentions for welfare reform actually are. Either you believe the president when he and his representatives say that this change to the work requirements is just a tiny tweak that doesn’t mean much, or you believe conservative policy experts like Robert Rector, who say that all that talk is a smokescreen for an attempt to gut the core of the 1996 bill.

To resolve this conflict, voters need to form a judgement about Obama’s long-term intentions. And to make that decision, Obama’s leftist history on this issue is pertinent information. In short, the president’s past matters, as the Romney campaign itself pointed out when it raised his 1996 statements in opposition to welfare reform. Have a look at what else Obama was doing that year, and the point becomes stronger still.

The media’s refusal to report the new information confirming that Obama did in fact join a leftist third party in 1996 clearly matters. If the public knew this history, it could have a very real impact on how this unfolding debate over Obama’s welfare changes plays out.

(Hyperlink in original.)

Related entry: “Obama-administration Repeal of Welfare Work Requirement Unconstitutional?”

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