the welfare waiver controversy
This started out as a Facebook response to some of my friends, but got long enough that I decided I should just post it here.
I’m going to write about the welfare ads that the Romney campaign has been running ads about, and particularly the claim that “Obama gutted the work requirements.” Let me start by noting that I’ve spent the past 16 years of my life working on TANF and related programs, 10 years as a civil service (non-political) employee of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, and the past 6 for an advocacy organization.
Having said that, let me add the disclaimer that I’m writing this as an individual, not representing my organization. If you want to read what I wrote about the waivers in my work capacity, it’s at:
I’m writing this on my own time, on my own computer, on my own blog. And while I know many of the people at HHS (both career employees and political appointees) who work on this issue, I did not know of the policy before it was announced to the public, and I haven’t had conversations with them about their motivations since.
So, what did the Administration do that Romney is claiming “gutted” welfare? They issued a memorandum to states, which you can read for yourself, “to notify states of the Secretary’s willingness to exercise her waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”
There are two different questions which are both in play: a) does the Administration have the legal authority to grant waivers of the work participation rates under TANF? and b) is proposing to grant such waivers, “gutting” or “undoing” welfare reform?
On the first question, I think the answer is yes, but I will accept that this is a point on which rational people can reasonably disagree.* It’s fair to say that the Clinton Administration did not think that they had the legal authority to do this, but they also had a strong political interest in being able to say to liberals “we don’t have the authority to give waivers” rather than “we choose not to” so I don’t think they looked hard for the legal arguments to support waivers. It’s also fair to say that the Republicans in Congress who are most outraged by this have accepted similar legal stretches under R administrations.
Moving to the substantive question, the memo says very explicitly that states can get waivers in order to test whether there are better ways to get people to work. The current work participation rate is a truly lousy measure — all it does is look at whether someone put their behind in a seat for the required number of hours a day, not whether the program did any good at helping them get jobs. And states spend an enormous amount of time and effort documenting these hours of participation, which is just not a good use of the limited resources (e.g. taxpayer money) available for this purpose. It is 100% true that governors — including Mitt Romney when he was Governor of MA — have been asking for this kind of flexibility for years.
Moreover, the proposal for waivers came with a very large string attached — states who get waivers are going to have to do random assignment evaluations to see if their programs are actually working better than the status quo. And, unlike in the pre-welfare reform waiver period, the federal government isn’t going to put up any new money to support the evaluations. So a state that does this has to be really convinced that it’s got a better way to do things, and be willing to tested. This is NOT the easy way out.
I sincerely think that the folks at HHS thought that they had written this memo carefully enough, with a strong enough emphasis on work, that it wouldn’t be controversial. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that they were wrong, but I think this was a misjudgement not a strategy. The idea that Obama did this for political advantage is truly crazy — if the Heritage Foundation and the Romney campaign hadn’t taken this on, I don’t think there would be more than a couple of hundred people in the entire country who would have noticed that this memo was issued, and I would be shocked if it changed the vote of a single one.
But Heritage jumped on the waiver memo as soon as it was released with screaming rhetoric about undoing welfare reform. This is their way of doing things — they made similarly outrageous claims about the Emergency Fund that was part of the Recovery Act. I don’t think there’s ANYTHING that the Obama Administration could do on welfare that Heritage wouldn’t immediately jump on. And I’m personally convinced that the Romney campaign picked up the Heritage rhetoric without actually reading the memo or having the foggiest idea what it was actually about. What’s sad is that they’re not backing down in the face of widespread coverage of the falsity of the claim because it’s a political winner. One of the most frustrating parts of this whole discussion is that it’s shown how little the public understands how much welfare has changed since 1996 — how hard it is to get benefits in most states, that there are work requirements, that there are time limits.