'Gut' Check: Obama Waiver Eviscerates Welfare Reform

Article excerpt


Time to fact-check the fact-checkers.

Citing Heritage Foundation research, Mitt Romney's campaign ran an ad accusing President Obama of attempting to gut welfare reform by waiving work requirements for recipients. The Obama campaign pushed back, claiming that waiving work requirements would strengthen reform by helping more recipients prepare for work.

Typical of much media commentary on this contretemps, The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler called the Romney ad over-the-top, while faulting the Obama campaign for falsely claiming that Mr. Romney had sought a similar waiver while governor of Massachusetts.

Conspicuously absent from his analysis? Any real scrutiny of the Obama waiver proposal or the welfare-reform law itself.

So let's take a look at the facts.

In 2006, Congress replaced the failed Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with TANF - the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program. TANF made two major changes: It gave states more flexibility in running their welfare programs, but second, able-bodied welfare recipients would have to work.

Section 407, entitled Mandatory Work Requirements, was the centerpiece of the legislation. It requires that states reduce or terminate payments to individuals who refuse to work without good cause.

But Congress knew well that states (or a work-hostile administration) might try to manipulate their regulations to skirt the work requirement. So it established a second requirement: To be eligible for federal TANF funds, state welfare programs shall achieve minimum work-participation rates for welfare recipients: 50 percent for all families and 90 percent for two-parent families.

Congress also defined what counts as work (so the bureaucrats couldn't count Weight Watchers or smoking-cessation therapy) and how participation rates must be calculated. And it put a hard 30 percent cap on the proportion of a state's welfare recipients who could participate in educational activities and still be counted as engaged in work.

When Congress was done, there wasn't any room for gaming.

And that's where things stood until last month, when the Obama administration announced it would grant waivers authorizing states to evade Section 407's definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures, and the calculation of participation rates. …