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As Long as We Remember...

July 17, 2012

Welfare Reform Down The Drain

Farrell Keough

Whether President Barack Obama wins or loses in this year’s election, we can expect more "policy directive" changes to our existing laws. Late last week, yet another of these occurrences took place with respect to the Welfare Reform of 1996 under President William J. Clinton.


By fiat, (either through Executive Order or directive) the president has systematically altered existing laws without input from Congress. A real duplicity when one considers that just a few months ago President Obama was commenting to the Supreme Court justices over Obamacare that he was "confident" the court would not "take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."


Consider this short list from Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post: "[t]he list of laws he won’t enforce or is unilaterally amending is getting long: Defense of Marriage Act, immigration laws, voting laws, and anti-terror laws. He won’t even enforce all the provisions of his signature legislation as we’ve seen in the bushels-full of Obamacare waivers. The latest and most inexplicable gambit is his decision to undo bipartisan welfare reform."


We now have a new, and severely under-reported, alteration to a fully bi-partisan bill from 1996 – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. This was a signature piece of legislation during President Clinton’s term in which he was able to wrest control of the conversation from Republicans and make this radical policy change in welfare his own – one of the many times Mr. Clinton showed his superior political acumen.


This "policy directive" change is both unconstitutional and un-authoritative. Very simplistically, the HHS (Health and Human Services) has given states the ability to alter what constitutes work. In a statement from Sen. Orin Hatch (R., UT):


The 1996 welfare reform bill, otherwise known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), ended welfare as an entitlement and empowered states with the authority to create unique and robust welfare to work programs. A central feature of devolution of federal authority back to the states was a vigorous work requirement for states, including a specific set of activities that qualified as "work."


Over the years, as states used the reduction in the welfare caseload to mitigate compliance with the 1996 TANF work requirement, the focus on vital welfare to work initiatives diminished.


In 2005, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office reported that several states listed as part of their definition of a "federal work activity" under TANF the following:


1. Bed rest

2. Personal care activities

3. Massage

4. Exercise

5. Journaling

6. Motivational reading

7. Smoking cessation

8. Weight loss promotion

9. Participating in parent teacher meetings

10. Helping a friend or relative with household tasks and errands. . . .


With unemployment remaining stuck over 8 percent, most Americans would not consider bed rest, smoking cessation classes and journaling as "work."


In a very technical sense, these definitions of what constitutes work are written up in the Social Security Act – an area of legislation that the Obama Administration does not have the authority to alter. Yet, Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services secretary, "explained that last week in a memo to states, concluding that while the executive branch is technically barred from waiving the work requirement, it can give states permission not to enforce it."


While a small number of politicians have spoken up about this egregious usurpation of authority, very few news outlets have spoken to this change. This bill was specifically written so this kind of fiddling with the definition of work could not happen – yet, this is exactly what is being pursued by this administration. The distraction of Bain Capital does not explain this oversight. When this legislation was originally passed, many declared this would harm families and children – yet, more than 15 years later, none of the proclamations have come to pass.


The real reason this is not being discussed is two-fold: politicians are terrified of the outcry intimating they 'hate the poor' and no one has such a well-defined plan to fix the economy, they cannot justify not extending any kind of welfare.


While a few states have already declared they will not follow these new exclusions, (Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad) others have suggested this ability will allow needed flexibility, (Florida Gov. Rick Scott). This change follows on the footsteps of a huge farm and nutrition bill which increases such things as food stamps to levels never seen before.


While this change is not going to cause the downfall of the Grand Experiment as we know it, it is symptomatic of the changes we see occurring to the fabric of our nation – government control and the entitlement mentality have become a mainstay rather than an outlier. A shift away from this mindset is not being promoted by either presidential candidate – although we must stop the bleeding! (Translated: President Obama cannot have a second term.)


People, as we have lamented before, the Republican Party has not stepped up – it is terrified of conservative values and the press. There is a very limited choice this year. The focus must remain on local, state, and the building of the national party.


But for now, the party must take that hill.



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