There is a strong moral case for welfare reform. Welfare binds the poor with the soft chains of good intentions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that there are 5.7 million job openings, but also reports that there are 7.1 million unemployed in our country. A compassionate response to the unemployed is not meager payouts every month to keep them alive. Genuine compassion means focusing on getting every level of government out of the way and creating conditions in which these 7.1 million unemployed individuals can get into those 5.7 million job openings, take pride in their work, help others by being productive citizens, and flourish.
The Clinton administration understood this, and recognized how government handouts threatened the ability and drive of people to succeed. In 1992, Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” He followed through on his campaign promise when he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law on August 22, 1996.
Despite the fact that they came from the same party, President Obama and his administration could not have had a more different approach. Nearly five years ago, Obama attacked this landmark law: without any legislative authority, the Department of Health and Human Services allowed states to petition to opt-out of the work requirements for food stamps.
“[Congress] put the definition of ‘work activities’ for determining welfare eligibility in a separate section of the bill, Section 407, and explicitly said that Section 407 could not be waived,” Conn Carroll wrote of Obama’s executive action. “But that is exactly what the Obama welfare memo did. It claimed that Section 1115 of the welfare reform law, a section granting the HHS secretary the power to grant waivers for state ‘demonstration projects,’ also empowered waiving Section 407.”
“Once Section 407 was killed, states were free to redefine ‘work’ under the welfare law. In the past, states have successfully labeled such activities as ‘personal journaling,’ ‘motivational reading’ and ‘weightless promotion’ as ‘work,’ thus allowing them to receive full federal funding without actually getting anyone off welfare and into a job. If the Obama welfare memo stands, the 1996 welfare reform law will have been repealed by executive fiat,” Carroll added.
Few question the need for a safety net for those who truly require assistance, but in most cases welfare should only be a stepping stone. What really encourages upward mobility and a better quality of life is a job. And that is why we morally must work to reform the welfare system in conservative ways. One of the first things we can do to improve our system is to reinstate the work requirement—and make sure capable participants actually, you know, work.
Welfare reform has seen tremendous success in the states. In the 1990s, Gov. Tommy Thompson (R-Wis.) overhauled the state’s welfare system. Welfare caseloads dropped by 60 percent and, because of the work requirements, the financial situations of families previously on these programs improved. Those successes may have been undermined by subsequent legislatures, but the state’s reform effort was an initial success. Kansas and Maine also saw declines in food stamp enrollments after reinstating work requirements.
Such solutions must be applied at the federal level, and with Republicans in the House, the Senate, and the White House, there is no time like the present. It won’t happen immediately: as Rachel Sheffield pointed out in The Daily Signal, “the vast majority of the federal government’s 80 means-tested welfare programs” – why are there so many? – “do not include a work requirement.” It will take a lot of work to restore the importance of work in America—but now is the time for conservatives to roll up their sleeves and get the job done.
Adam Brandon is president of FreedomWorks.