The administration has repeatedly denied charges that its changes to welfare law have effectively gutted the sweeping reforms undertaken in 1996.
But judging from continuing statistical trends, there’s no denying that welfare rolls have grown at an alarming rate during Barack Obama’s tenure as president.
And due to the White House’s misguided intervention on welfare regulations, there is now a realistic probability that work requirements will be eased for states seeking to avoid federal welfare funding reductions. That will result in even higher welfare costs to the American taxpayer.
The tab for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, has soared in the last four years. Roughly 32 million Americans received food stamps when Mr. Obama became president.
That number had climbed steeply to 47.5 million in the Jan. 4 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Even more alarming: According to that same USDA release, 26.9 percent of all Americans under 18 received SNAP aid last year.
The charge that welfare reform was being quietly eviscerated initially came last summer from one of the architects of the work requirement in the 1996 welfare reform law — Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. He wrote that the Obama administration “grossly violates the intent and letter of the reform law.”
President Obama dismissed that criticism as “patently false.” And the changes implemented by the Department of Health and Human Services did seem relatively innocuous — billed as an attempt to help states “consider new, more effective ways of meeting” the goals of welfare reform.
But in practice, the new HHS waiver policies were an invitation to states to propose easing the definition of work to avoid losing federal funds.
The welfare reform law imposes penalties for failure to meet specified work targets. In an era of lingering high unemployment and state budget woes, that is a powerful incentive for devising creative ways to avoid a loss of federal funding.
And states have long tried to game the welfare law to prevent the loss of federal grants.
A 2003 study commissioned by HHS found that some states counted, as work, hours spent in activities not part of the law’s definition of work, including basic education, “family life skills,” and treatment and recovery from illnesses, substance abuse and domestic violence.
In 2005 the Government Accountability Office found that some states credited work hours for time spent receiving a massage, keeping a personal journal, motivational reading and exercise at home or in a supervised gym.
Congress directed that these abuses be eliminated.
But broader abuses became a real possibility under the HHS’s new waiver policy.
For example, California’s 2012 budget fact sheet reports: “California, which currently receives $3.7 billion annually from the federal government for welfare services, has failed to meet the [welfare law’s] work requirement since 2007.”
Consequently, the federal government should have reduced California’s welfare payment by 15 percent, or more than $500 million.
At least 44 states, including South Carolina, fell short of meeting the federal work targets for welfare recipients in 2012, according to HHS figures.
And the GAO’s general counsel said HHS broke the law by failing to ask permission from Congress before opening the door to state petitions for easing the work requirement.
But don’t look for Congress to roll back the new rules as long as the Senate remains a Democratic bastion.
Like President Obama’s use of a “creative” re-interpretation of congressional recess rules to make controversial appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, the HHS rules might be challenged in court. Barring that, the only protection against a new raid on the federal treasury from the gutting of welfare reform will be vigilance by informed citizens — and changes forced at the ballot box.
Ed Feulner wrote about the benefits of welfare reform in a recent op-ed:
“After the 1996 reform, the number of welfare recipients in the primary welfare program (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) dropped by 50 percent as more people got jobs and learned to take care of themselves. Earnings and employment rose. Child poverty went down.”
Welfare is an essential safety net for American citizens. Welfare reform was needed to ensure that dependency doesn’t become a way of life.
It still is.