In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress worked with a Democratic President to reform the nation's welfare system by promoting work as a central focus of helping low-income families out of poverty. At the time President Bill Clinton said, "first and foremost [welfare reform] should be about moving people from welfare to work."
Sixteen years later, the Obama Administration's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is seeking to turn back those bipartisan reforms by administrative fiat. In a memorandum released in July, the agency announced it would grant states a waiver to redefine work.
In a bipartisan vote the House of Representatives moved to rebuff that effort and to restore welfare's work requirement. Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA), a leading proponent of welfare reform, voted in favor of the measure.
"This guts bipartisan reforms and backs off the programs commitment to helping American gain independence," said Kingston. "These reforms should be the model for legislative cooperation and achievement. Just four years after they were implemented, caseloads were cut in half. Studies show that most found work and saw their incomes rise. Welfare is meant to be a safety net, providing those who need it a bridge to self-sufficiency. Instead of weakening these reforms, the President should work with Congress on policies that break the chains of government dependence."
Opponents of the Obama Administration's efforts to weaken welfare reform point to the resounding success they have had in reshaping the program. Since enactment of the work requirement, the number of welfare recipients has dropped by 57 percent. Poverty among single mothers has declined by 30 percent and employment and earnings among them have increased significantly.
They also point to the wobbly legal ground on which the Administration is basing its effort. Current law provides limited waiver authority to the HHS secretary and the section outlining federal work requirements is not included therein. The Government Accountability Office found that the Obama Administration did not follow the law when it unilaterally announced the change and that HHS has stated explicitly stated it did not have the authority to waive the work requirements.
In addition, the Administration's effort would reopen a loophole Congress closed in 2006 when it was learned that states were gaming the system and allowing some to claim personal journaling, bed rest, and weight loss as work activities.
"These reforms gave millions of American families a helping hand out of poverty," Kingston said. "Repealing them now is no way to move our country forward."