‚??I probably would not have supported the federal legislation.‚?Ě So said Barack Obama in 1997 referencing The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), AKA welfare reform.
Like other positions he took in the late 1990s (see: gay marriage), Obama seemed to change his mind (or at least his rhetoric) on welfare reform as he sought national office, only to circle back to his original position once ensconced in the White House.
As president, Obama has sought to systematically undermine the 1996 welfare reform law. And Mitt Romney is right to highlight that fact.
Before welfare reform, under the federal assistance program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the federal government gave the states more money for every family they added to their welfare rolls. Not surprisingly, this system gave states a disincentive to help people move from dependence on government to work and independence.
AFDC was criticized by conservatives and liberals alike for creating perverse incentives, including out-of-wedlock births and long-term unemployment. Many recipients saw no reason to get off welfare, because they knew they‚??d be paid indefinitely for not working.
PRWORA replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which offered time-limited financial aid to people in need. Under TANF, states got block grants from the federal government. States were given incentives to cut their welfare rolls and get people into jobs. For instance, benefits were cut after two years for most individuals. The new law also encouraged two-parent families and married childbearing, and it enhanced enforcement of child support.
Welfare reform has been an overwhelming success. In the years after it was implemented, welfare caseloads plummeted, as did child poverty rates.
At various times since it became law, Democrats have sought to block reauthorization of welfare reform and relax work requirements. And the Obama administration has undertaken policies to dismantle some of the reforms.
The Obama ‚??stimulus‚?Ě subsidized the expansion of welfare rolls by having the federal government pay states 80 percent of the cost for each new family they added to their welfare rolls. Partly as a consequence of the increase in federal welfare funds, welfare rolls increased in 2009 for the first time since the reform was enacted.
In July, the Obama administration effectively waived the reform‚??s strict work requirements. The law requires a certain share of a state‚??s welfare recipients to be ‚??engaged in work‚?Ě or specific ‚??work activities‚?Ě such as education or job training.
But the administration is allowing states to come up with alternatives for satisfying the work requirement, such as allowing job search programs to count as work.
But the original law does not allow states any flexibility. As he has done with so much of his agenda, Obama has implemented by fiat what he could not do with congressional approval. ‚??It might not be illegal,‚?Ě Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institute, who helped pass the 1996 law, said last week, ‚??but [the administration] didn‚??t even consult with the Republicans. They knew the spirit of the law, and they violated it.‚?Ě
The work-participation provisions are an essential part of the law. President Clinton twice vetoed welfare reform because of the workfare provision. But the Republican Congress refused to back down on that core requirement. Now our imperial president has erased it by fiat.
The Romney campaign has been highlighting Obama‚??s dismantling of welfare reform. In a recent ad, the narrator states, ‚??Under Obama‚??s plan, you wouldn‚??t have to work and wouldn‚??t have to train for a job ‚?? they‚??d just send you a welfare check.‚?Ě
Last week on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney cited the administration‚??s undermining of welfare reform as another example of how Obama is creating a nation of people increasingly dependent on the government. ‚??That is wrong,‚?Ě Romney said. ‚??If I‚??m president, I‚??ll put work back in welfare. We will end the culture of dependency and restore a culture of good, hard work.‚?Ě
Kudos to Romney for taking on Obama. Social conservatives have been urging Romney to spend more time talking about values issues. And work is a core values issue.
As a candidate, even Obama acknowledged as much. He wrote in The Audacity of Hope, ‚??Americans believe in work‚??not just as a means of supporting themselves but as a means of giving their lives purpose and direction, order and dignity.‚?Ě
Back then, Obama also had kind words for welfare reform efforts of the 1990s. ‚??We should also acknowledge that conservatives‚??and Bill Clinton‚??were right about welfare as it was previously structured,‚?Ě he wrote, ‚??By detaching income from work‚?¶the old AFDC program sapped people of their initiative and eroded their self-respect. ‚?¶Any strategy to reduce intergenerational poverty has to be centered on work, not welfare.‚?Ě
As president, Obama acts as if he no longer believes in the value of work. His only core belief, it seems, is that citizens should be dependent on government for all that they do. That‚??s the very definition of a welfare state.