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About Those Welfare Waivers: The Point is More Work, Not Less

David Callahan

Yesterday I wrote about the hypocrisy of Mitt Romney and Tommy Thompson for bashing the Obama Administration's decision to grant states more flexibility around TANF -- when Republicans, including both Romney and Thompson -- called for such flexibility during the Bush years.

As the Romney campaign continues to air an ad attacking President Obama for "gutting" the work requirements in the 1996 law, a few hardy journalists and bloggers have taken the time to wade through the turgid memo by HHS which laid out the new waiver policy in July.

What is striking is how diametrically opposite the goal of HHS's move is to Republican charges: The new policy is clearly aimed at increasing work by welfare recipients, not decreasing work.

As many analysts know, TANF has largely been a flop in terms of moving welfare recipients into the work force. A large chunk of those who stop getting TANF don't end up working, but rather sink into extreme poverty -- a problem that has grown since the law was enacted.

Meanwhile, state governments have been saying for years that they could do a better job of promoting work if they only had more flexibility. So it makes sense that HHS would grant such flexibility. And, in doing so, HHS was explicit that the whole point of the waivers was to ensure more work, saying it was "interested in more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs that offer opportunities for earnings and advancement. . . ."

Among other things, HHS said it would consider waivers for:

  • Projects that improve coordination with other components of the workforce investment system, including programs operated under the Workforce Investment Act, or to test an innovative approach to use performance-based contracts and management in order to improve employment outcomes.
  • Projects that improve collaboration with the workforce and/or post-secondary education systems to test multi-year career pathways models for TANF recipients that combine learning and work.
  • Projects that demonstrate attainment of superior employment outcomes if a state is held accountable for negotiated employment outcomes in lieu of participation rate requirements.

The memo said explicitly that: "The Secretary will not approve a waiver for an initiative that appears substantially likely to reduce access to assistance or employment for needy families."

Sebelius repeated these points in a July letter to Orrin Hatch and Dave Camp, two members of Congress who loudly condemned the new policy.

"Our goal is to accelerate job placement by moving more Americans from welfare to work," she wrote. "No policy which undercuts that goal or waters down work requirements will be considered or approved."

"The department is providing a very limited waiver opportunity for states that develop a plan to measurably increase the number of beneficiaries who find and hold down a job." (emphasis added.)

Ultimately, critics of the waiver policy seem to have different motivations. For Hatch and Camp, a big beef is that the executive branch simply doesn't have the authority to make these changes, and they have asked the GAO to look into whether Congress can block HHS from granting waivers.

For the Romney camp, though, the waiver issue is clearly a cudgel to use against Obama -- whatever the truth.

Meanwhile, as I noted yesterday, more important issues about TANF are being ignored -- like the way that states have diverted billions of dollars meant for needy families to other areas, as revealed in new study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published earlier this week. 

Now there is a story that you'd think Congressmen worried about preserving their institution's authority would jump on: States misusing billions appropriated on Capitol Hill.

Apparently not.