Obama weakens welfare reform–again

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Obama weakens welfare reform (again): Here are some quick initial reactions to the administration’s apparent surprising (and possibly illegal) attempt to grant waivers of the work requirements written, after great effort, into the 1996 welfare reform law.  I’m posting Thursday night; the story should break for real tomorrow (Friday). This will be updated over the next few days if possible.

1. The guts of the 1996 welfare reform were a) welfare was ended as an “entitlement” (controlled by the feds) and transferred to the states, as a “block grant” subject to certain requirements; and b) one of those requirements was that a certain percentage of each state’s welfare caseload had to be working or preparing for work. A great deal of effort was put into defining what qualified as work, and making sure that work actually meant work and not the various BS activities (including BS training activities) the welfare bureaucracies often preferred to substitute for work.

2. As of several years ago, the details of these work requirements turned out to matter less than the general signal they sent, that no-strings welfare was over and even low-income single moms were supposed to work. As a result, the welfare rolls shrank so rapidly (roughly by half) that many states never faced the detailed work requirements (since they got credit for everyone who left welfare).

3. But of course the work requirements were part of what sent that general “signal.”

4.  To the extent the administration’s action erodes the actual and perceived toughness of the work requirements, which it does, it sends the opposite and wrong signal.

5. The Democrat’s 2009 stimulus bill changed the incentives of the 1996 reform by once again rewarding states that expanded their welfare rolls. If you worry about Obama reestablishing the bad old pre-reform welfare system, though, this is worse.

6. Rector and Bradley of Heritage (among the first to attack Obama’s action) make the case that the law’s work requirements were specifically designed to not be waivable, and that Obama is using HHS’s authority to waive state reporting requirements as a tricky way of voiding the underlying substantive requirements that are to be reported about.  The Heritage argument–that what HHS did was illegal–seems powerful, but I haven’t read the other side’s brief. Perhaps Obama is invoking the long-lost “we can’t wait” clause to enact a change that would never pass a democratically elected Congress–in this case not because Congress is “gridlocked” and and “dysfunctional” and “partisan” but because relaxing work requirements has never been popular with voters, even during less partisan and gridlocked times, even in the swingin’ 60s (also not in the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and the 00s)..

7. Nothing in the Obama Health and Human Services Department (HHS) memo suggests this is a temporary measure taken because, thanks to the prolonged recession, there aren’t enough jobs for welfare recipients to take. Even if there is a job shortage, the answer isn’t to get rid of the work requirements but to provide useful, public jobs (that receipients would then be required to perform, on pain of losing their checks, just like regular workers). You could call such jobs “workfare,” but in effect they would be something like a backdoor WPA..

8. HHS’s rationale is not the recession, but the alleged need to find “new more effective ways to meet the goals of [the reformed welfare program], particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment.” In short, job prep, counseling and training. That’s how HHS would loosen the statutory work requirements–by allowing “an extended training period for those pursuing a credential,” or “multi-year career pathways” or something ominously called “a comprehensive universal engagement system” (which I’m unfamiliar with but which sure sounds like stay-on-the-dole-while-we-keep-you-busy-with-anything-other-than-actual-work system).

9.  Job training for welfare recipients always sounds good–instead of making a single mom take a dead end $10/hr job, why not let her stay on the dole while she gets a degree that will let her land a higher paying position? The problem is that if you let single moms mix welfare and training that will encourage more single moms to go on welfare in the first place–sign up, and we’ll pay you to go to community college! The rolls might grow, not shrink. Instead of being deterred from going on the dole–so they just go straight into jobs, bypassing welfare completely–would-be recipients will be lured into signing up first (by the promises of a “multi-year career pathway”) and then be subsidized and prodded to get off.

10. I had thought the 1996 welfare reform had rejected this “trainfare” model, in favor of a no-BS model that says “work” means work. The need to actually work would discourage potential single moms from having the child–almost always out-of-wedlock–that would put them on the dole in the first place.

11. Obama’s HHS weasels out of this logic by deploying the social scientists’ idea of experimentation–an approach championed in the 80’s by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. The idea is that welfare-to-work programs are like lab tests, or FDA drug trials. You give Recipient A the standard welfare benefit–maybe you require her to take a low-wage job immediately. You let Recipient B stay on the rolls while she trains to be a nurse. Then you measure which recipient is doing better after a year, or five years– how much taxpayer money each has used in benefits, how much the training costs, etc. And you figure out which plan is “effective.”  The fatal problem of this Soc Sci Lab Experiment approach is, again, that it looks only at Recipients A and B. It doesn’t look at the social effect of Recipient A and B’s example on others who might go on welfare in the future. It may well be that a relatively luxurious, “multi-year career pathway”is great for Recipient B–she gets a better job in the end–but terrible for society. It would be better for the rest of us, overall, to require work immediately so that other would-be recipients would look at Recipient B the way they look at Recipient A (who had to actually work while trying to raise a kid) and decide not to make the bad life choices that would put them in her situation. They’d delay childbearing, acquire skills first, or marry a second breadwinner, etc.

12. In the 1980s, the Soc Sci Lab Experiment approach discredited itself when MDRC’s studies showed that requiring work immediately, with a minimum of fancy training,** was better even for Recipients A and B, let alone for society. I don’t know how this discredited approach made such a comeback–but the HHS memo fully embraces it.*** The rationale for granting waivers from work requirements is that state “experiments” will allow “evaluations” to show which initiatives were “effective”–i.e. lab-style tests of alternatives to work.  Too bad the wrong things will be evaluated.

13. If this is a political move, I don’t understand it. Requiring that welfare recipients work is a political winner–proven, again and again. Welfare horror stories helped elect Ronald Reagan. A promise to “end welfare as we know it” elected President Clinton–every time Clinton got into trouble he’d just start running welfare reform ads.  And in 2008, Barack Obama didn’t dare suggest that he wanted to do what he has done today.

Obama’s given his opponents a huge opportunity to raise the “welfare” issue, to associate him with the unpopular idea of subsidizing women who have children they can’t support, usually out of wedlock–even giving them free community college training that hard-working people who don’t go on welfare can’t get! The GOPs don’t even have to move their heads into the 21st century by calling Obama the “food stamp President.” They can dust off their attacks on the old, hated AFDC program–the welfare part of the welfare state.

What’s the payoff for Obama ? When he took executive action to effectively impose the DREAM law that Congress wouldn’t pass, he was trying to mobilize a large, reliably Democratic constituency–Latinos. Cynical, maybe, but rational. What does he get for this move, in exchange for possibly getting hammered by the Republicans (and by some endangered Democrats)? Who supports it? Well, community colleges surely support it–they’re a powerful lobby, and they’ll get lots of subsidized students-on-welfare. Unions support it–they want public aid recipients to stay on the dole, or in training, lest they join the work force and compete for jobs. They especially don’t want them performing public “workfare” tasks that well-compensated, pensioned AFSCME workers might be performing.

But it doesn’t add up. The downside seems to emphatically outweigh the upside. There just aren’t a lot of voters–even union voters–fuming about the work requirements in the 1996 reform law. That’s why I suspect this wasn’t another Axelrod Special, but rather the action of committed anti-reform activists in HHS–e.g., Mark Greenberg–who realized that this was their last best opportunity to undo part of the 1996 reform that they opposed in 1996. If they waited until closer to the election, it would be more likely to be noticed and attacked. If they waited until after the election–well, they might not win the election.

14. That said, Obama’s HHS doesn’t take us all the way back to pre-1996 days.  If today’s action stands–surviving legal as well as political challenge–it will allow HHS to let those states that don’t really want to require welfare recipients to work to not require them to work. Before 1996, HHS would be preventing states that did want to require welfare recipients to work from requiring them to work. Still a big difference between then and today. But not as much as between then and yesterday.

15. Souljah Opening Available: Obama could turn the HHS rule into a big political plus if he dramatically ordered Secretary Sebelius to withdraw it, saying he wanted to encourage people to work, not go on the dole. But that’s not his style.

Update: Dave Weigel points out the long-term implications of the administration’s legal argument: Once HHS has the power to fiddle with work requirements, even worse may be on the way. The Mark Greenbergs are just getting started.

More: Byron York has Romney’s well-stated, if non-inflammatory, response. … See John Ellis’ Twitter feed for some GOP-side appreciation for the opening this gives Obama’s opponent. …


**– 7/23 Update: Once the “work first” approach was shown to benefit even existing recipients, it could carry the day without requiring lawmakers to confront the tradeoffs involved in deterring people from going on welfare in the first place. “That principle, ‘work first,’ was the radical essence of the 1996 reform,” as Kay Hymowitz notes.  Lots of liberal policy types still opposed “work first,” of course, and they seem to have come into power under Obama. Hymowitz quotes Univeristy of Maryland’s Douglas Besharov:

“The domestic policy staff doesn’t believe in ‘work first’; they want education, job training, and support. If they had their way, they would have gotten those provisions in the [welfare reform] reauthorization. Now they see they will not control the House and it will be impossible to get through their policies.” …

***– An HHS official says state bureaucracies “expressed a strong interest in greater flexibility.” Of course–they always do! That’s why there was a big fight when writing the statute’s requirements. Welfare reformers could be forgiven for thinking the issue was settled then. If Obama let states off the hook every time they didn’t like a federal law … well, many federal programs would collapse. Obamacare, for starters.

Mickey Kaus