POLITICS
05/24/2010 05:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Welfare-To-Work Program Targeted By GOP Is Supported By Some Republicans

The first target of leading GOP lawmaker Eric Cantor's "YouCut" initiative is emergency funding for a welfare to work program that is supported by some prominent elected Republicans and conservative economists.

The House Minority Whip's new effort to crowd-source deficit control has put some attention on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Fund (TANF ECF), which won a GOP-run YouTube contest asking people to vote on which of five federal programs the Republican Party should attempt to slash. At $2.5 billion a year, the program costs less than one tenth of one percent of the federal budget, and it's on track to place 186,000 unemployed individuals in subsidized jobs by the end of the summer.

Dems have called the vote a "stupid gimmick." Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) earned GOP derision by saying, "For all we know on YouCut, Osama Bin Laden could be voting!"

But the fact that 81,000 out of 280,000 participants voted to axe the TANF ECF, may have less to do with nefarious voters than with how the program was described on YouCut:

The program was recently created to incentivize states to increase their welfare caseloads without requiring able-bodied adults to work, get job training, or otherwise prepare to move off of taxpayer assistance. Reforming the welfare program was one of the great achievements of the mid 1990s, saving taxpayers billions of dollars and ending the cycle of dependency on welfare. This new program, created in 2009 is a backdoor way to undo those reforms.

That's "wildly inaccurate," according the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They explain:

Far from a "backdoor way to undo" welfare reform, the fund has enabled states to expand work-focused programs within TANF despite high unemployment and a weak economy.

Here are the facts:

The Emergency Fund will enable states to place 186,000 unemployed individuals in subsidized jobs by the end of the summer. It's the largest subsidized employment effort states have ever taken under TANF, the national block grant created by the 1996 welfare reform law. (More details here and here). A large share of the jobs are in the private sector.

· The claim that the Emergency Fund "incentivizes states to increase their welfare caseloads" is simply wrong. States don't have to increase their caseloads to qualify for money from the Emergency Fund. In fact, some states whose caseloads have sharply declined despite the recession have used money from the fund to help create subsidized jobs for low-income parents and youth or to provide one-time assistance to families in crisis (such as help paying a back rent or utility bill for a family facing eviction). In addition, states have to contribute 20 percent of the costs.

· Individuals receiving TANF assistance funded through the Emergency Fund must meet the same stringent work requirements imposed on other TANF recipients. They have 12 weeks to find a job -- an extremely difficult task in today's labor market -- after which they must meet their work requirement through other work activities, such as unpaid work. A limited number of recipients may be permitted to pursue short-term education and training.

Kevin Hassett, a conservative economist from the American Enterprise Institute, calls it "a pragmatic approach to the jobs crisis that cost[s] a lot less and carr[ies] a big bang for the buck."

"Given the state of the labor market, it is hard to imagine how any sensible person could oppose such a move..." wrote Hassett in an article for Bloomberg. "If they are to be more than the party of no, Republicans need to rally around the Democrats who have shown such reserved pragmatism."

So the question is, have Republicans inaccurately described the program or misunderstood it? Brad Dayspring, communications director for Rep. Cantor, offered an alternative perspective.

"While some have argued that the fund does not incentivize states to increase the number of people on welfare, in fact, that is the very first purpose for which states can qualify for this money -- for grants "related to caseload increases," wrote Dayspring in an email to HuffPost.

"Some have also suggested the welfare emergency fund does not allow States to increase the number of people receiving assistance without requiring people to engage in work-related activities. Wrong again... any increases in welfare caseloads that follow the creation of the welfare emergency fund do not force states to engage more recipients in work."

However, while the impetus for the emergency program was indeed "related" to fears that the collapsing economy would increase caseloads, a state is not required to increase its load to access the funds. And the program requires states to contribute funds for every new person served, removing some of the incentive to add folks to the rolls.

"You must forgive my shock to hear that Congressional Republicans don't think we need to help people who are suffering during the recession created by President Bush and his party's leadership in Congress," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), chairman of the Ways and Means Income Security and Family Support Subcommitte . "They are so out of touch that they have deceived people about a program that Republicans outside the Beltway think is a good thing."

The program has the support of several Republicans outside of Washington, including Haley Barbour, the Republican Governor of Mississippi, who has lauded TANF ECF -- as an effective mechanism to create jobs and help families, calling it a "a welfare to work" program. (GOP aides respond that it's only reasonable that state officials would want to continue to get additional federal money.)

A vote to extend the TANF ECF, which expires in September, failed in the Senate earlier this year, but the tax "extenders" bill being voted on in the House Tuesday includes $2.5 billion to keep TANF ECF going through 2011. As many as 100,000 people will lose their jobs unless Congress extends the stimulus bill provision, and a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows some of the jobs will start disappearing well before September 30.

One possible harbinger: a House procedural vote tied to eliminating it failed 240-177 last Thursday. But the vote comes at a time when many Americans are worried about spending, and Washington lawmakers are sensitive to that.

"Eric Cantor and House Republicans understand that transforming the culture of spending in Washington to a culture of saving is going to anger many in the establishment who want to ignore the people and keep their spending spree alive, which no doubt explains the out-of-touch actions of some like Speaker Pelosi, Leader Hoyer, and Chris Van Hollen," Dayspring told HuffPost. "These leaders should, at minimum, welcome a debate on modest spending cuts supported by the American people. Some cuts may fail, but hell, perhaps a few Democrats might actually welcome a discussion focused on saving money and support an actual spending cut."

The bill goes to the Senate later this week.

Ryan Grim contributed reporting