Add undermining welfare reform to the list of President Obama’s run-ins with the inconvenience of Article 1 of the Constitution — right alongside the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate, the war in Libya, recess appointments and a Department of Homeland Security memo declining to enforce immigration law. Mr. Obama’s run-in with welfare reform occurred on July 12, when HHS announced it would unilaterally waive the work requirements central to the bipartisan 1996 welfare reforms.
Make no mistake, undermining is what Mr. Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have attempted. Whenever a weaker policy is substituted in lieu of another, the term applies.
In this case, the weaker policy is the HHS alternative to work requirements that would allow states to continue drawing welfare funds, provided they move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work. On the surface, that sounds great. But what is meant to appear as a safeguard to the spirit of the ‘96 reforms would, in reality, reward failure.
For a state to meet the 20 percent threshold, it would behoove it to grow its welfare caseloads. Because welfare has steady turnover, larger overall caseloads always will inflate exit statistics and make it easier for states to satisfy the president’s alternative. That metric problem prompted one of the architects of the ‘96 reforms, Robert Rector, to write recently in The Washington Post that using exit statistics as opposed to caseload statistics to convey programmatic success “is inherently misleading.”
Success for welfare is objective. If fewer Americans need welfare, we know the program is working. The stellar record of the ‘96 reforms the president has decided to counter is not up for debate. Requiring, as the reforms do, a minimum of 50 percent of a state’s able-bodied welfare recipients to be actively looking for work or engaged in workforce training has helped pave a way for many Americans and their families to escape cyclical poverty. Following the ‘96 reforms, the overall welfare caseload was reduced by 57 percent, poverty among single mothers fell 30 percent while their employment and earnings increased, and poverty among black children dropped to its lowest levels ever in 2001.
By giving states the option to choose between his flawed exit-statistics method and the existing bipartisan work requirements, the president is gutting welfare reform.
To distract from this untenable position and the fact that the president’s unilateral move violates law, Democrats are attempting to paint the Republicans as inconsistent on the issue of welfare reform. The most recent target for their obfuscation is the Workforce Investment Improvement Act (WIIA) that I authored with my Republican colleagues, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California and Rep. Joseph J. Heck of Nevada. Democrats are claiming this legislation would replace the ‘96 reforms. But there is no point to their partisan exercise.
WIIA would neither contradict nor supplant the ‘96 work requirements. The proposed legislation was written to allow governors to cut down on the number of redundant taxpayer-subsidized employment and job-training programs (including 47 federally funded programs). WIIA would reduce inefficiencies in how states administer these programs, not undermine welfare reform.
Republicans have a clear record of strengthening the work requirements at the heart of the 1996 welfare reform bill, and we stand with the 83 percent of Americans who want to see them upheld. Just this week, we took action and passed House Joint Resolution 118 to officially reject the president’s attempt to provide an easy way out of welfare’s work eligibility requirements. A policy as successful as the reforms of ‘96 merits defending from anyone who would see it weakened, be they president or not.
Rep. Virginia Foxx is a North Carolina Republican.