Upending Welfare Reform? Obama Criticized for Giving States More Flexibility

After the Obama administration announced this week that it is opening up waivers to states from the work requirements contained in welfare reform, Republicans began to speak out against the move, complaining it completely undercuts the law.

"The success of bipartisan welfare reform, passed under President Clinton, has rested on the obligation of work," Gov. Mitt Romney wrote in a statement Friday. "The president's action is completely misdirected. Work is a dignified endeavor, and the linkage of work and welfare is essential to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life."

Under the 1996 law, able-bodied adults have been required to work, seek employment, take classes, or undergo drug and alcohol counseling in exchange for taxpayer-funded payments known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. About four million Americans currently receive TANF payments.

The Department of Health and Human Services believes the waivers would help parents "successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment." The department encouraged states to begin testing a range of new strategies, policies and procedures designed to improve employment outcomes for the needy.

The move gives states the ability to apply for waivers, but those applications would still have to be approved by the secretary. Two states with GOP governors, Utah and Nevada, have submitted requests for a waiver so far, while three additional states, Connecticut, Minnesota, and California, have asked about the potential for waivers.

"This new flexibility will strengthen welfare reform rules and the effectiveness of state efforts to connect families with work. Waivers that weaken or undercut welfare reform will not be approved," George Sheldon, an assistant secretary at HHS, wrote in a blog. "Waivers that seek to avoid time limits or other federal restrictions on when assistance may be provided will not be approved. "

But Congressional Republicans decried the move as "a blatant violation of the law" and contend the waivers will actually cause harm to the impoverished Americans because beneficiaries will come to rely on the handout with little motivation to seek employment.

"By waiving the law's requirements, President Obama will make it harder for Americans to escape poverty," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, wrote in a statement. "He is hurting the very people he claims to help."

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Rep. Dave Camp, the chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top-ranked Republican on the Senate Finance committee, wrote HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius jointly demanding an explanation of the decision and also questioned her authority to do it, contending that the law indicates that states cannot waive TANF work requirements.

Camp, one of the original authors of the legislation, called the move "a brazen and unwarranted unraveling" of the law that "ends welfare reform as we know it."

"Welfare reform provided states a simple deal: fixed federal funding and enormous flexibility in exchange for a requirement that they engage welfare recipients in work and related activities," Camp, R-Mich., wrote in a statement. "In response, states helped record numbers of low-income parents go to work, earnings soared, and dependence on welfare and poverty plunged by record levels."

"It is akin to a child who doesn't get what he or she wants, so they take their ball and go home," Rep. Tim Scott, a freshman Republican from South Carolina, stated. "You don't improve people's lives with handouts, you improve people's lives by showing them, as I learned growing up in the inner city in a single parent household, that you can think and work your way out of poverty."