It is considered one of the great political compromises, and one of the most unequivocally successful policy changes in recent congressional history. Welfare reform, a joint effort by President Clinton and a Republican Congress led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, confirms both that bipartisan progress is possible in a sharply divided government and that good things happen when the status quo is toppled
Following passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the number of people on the welfare rolls dropped 57 percent. Employment and earnings among single mothers increased, leading to a 30 percent drop in the poverty rate for their families.
Work requirements were the key to this success. Prior to implementation of work requirements, 65 percent of families remained dependent on welfare for an average of eight years or more. Individual beneficiaries received welfare assistance for an average of 13 years over the course of their lifetime. Requiring that welfare recipients either have a job or be training or looking for one as a condition of obtaining public assistance was the catalyst that helped many families break the cycle of poverty and dependence.
Reforms that have been so effective for 16 years were severely undermined by a July directive from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that would allow states to waive the work requirements. The Obama administration defends this unilateral policy change -- undertaken without congressional approval or consultation -- by claiming it is intended to increase state flexibility. Regardless, there is no doubt that eliminating the "requirement" component of work requirements weakens welfare reform and opens the door to all manner of confusion and corruption. A 2005 study conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found instances of states gaming the system by claiming personal journaling, bed rest, and weight loss counted as work-related activities. In response, Congress directed HHS to strengthen its oversight of state implementation of work requirements in 2006. Now that the work requirements have been jettisoned altogether, the potential for abuse at the state level is even greater.
The House of Representatives recently acted to block the Obama administration's effort to weaken work requirements. H.J.Res. 118, which passed the House on September 20, asserts that only Congress has the authority to make such a major change to the welfare reform law and would prevent the misguided new policy from taking effect. Welfare reform is a true bipartisan success story, and maintaining the crucial work requirements is even more important during this period of persistently high unemployment. The millions of people struggling in this tough economy will be much better served by maintaining proven reforms than by returning to the failed policies of government dependency.