WASHINGTON ― Republicans claimed President Barack Obama “gutted welfare reform” when his administration said it would let states test new ways of getting poor people from welfare to jobs.
Mitt Romney made the accusation a big part of his 2012 presidential campaign, and congressional Republicans pushed legislation to disallow the change.
But with Donald Trump in the White House, Republicans in the House of Representatives adopted a policy that is strikingly similar to what they said they hated in 2012. Though it has received little attention, the reversal is as dramatic as their recent flip-flops on deficit spending and bailouts for farmers.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is a federal welfare program run by states, which are required to make sure a certain percentage of beneficiaries are working or engaged in “work activities.” A new Republican bill would eliminate the work participation rate requirement in favor of tracking whether recipients can get and keep jobs.
“Our bill gets rid of the focus on process, concentrating instead on outcomes,” Republicans from the House Ways and Means Committee said in a press release Wednesday.
When the Obama administration expressed the same policy goal, Republicans said it would destroy the program. But a spokesman for the committee said the current legislation would be tougher than what the Obama administration had in mind.
“This legislation strengthens the work requirement and holds states accountable through sanctions,” Ways and Means spokesman Rob Damschen said in an email. “Contrast that with the Obama Administration’s plan allowing states to waive those requirements without any replacement or measure of accountability of states found out of compliance.”
The committee passed the bill in May, but its prospects are uncertain in the full House. Republicans promoted the legislation this week as part of their broader message about the strength of the economy, which they say makes it a good time to bounce people out of the safety net and into jobs.
With fewer than 2 million adult beneficiaries, TANF is one of the federal government’s smaller anti-poverty programs. Benefits vary by state and can be as low as $170 per month for a family of three. But the program is highly symbolic. It’s the most closely connected to the word “welfare,” and it looms large on the policy landscape because of Bill Clinton’s famous welfare reform deal with Republicans in 1996.
Because of that deal, TANF helps far fewer Americans than it once did ― fewer than 30 percent of eligible parents get benefits ― and it is now one of the least significant federal programs in terms of its impact on poor people’s lives.
Republicans love to talk about the “success” of welfare reform, and that’s why Romney’s campaign raged about Obama allegedly undoing TANF’s work requirements.
“President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements,” said a 2012 Romney TV ad. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”
The ads were not true, and they played on racial resentment. The word “welfare” has strong racial connotations, and polling shows that most Americans associate terms like “welfare” and “food stamps” with African-Americans, even though most beneficiaries of those programs are not black.
Here’s what the Obama administration did: In July 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that states could apply for waivers from some TANF rules if they wanted to try pilot programs that could put more people into jobs. The department stressed that it would “only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.” Instead of tracking the number of people doing qualifying work activities, states could ask to track employment outcomes.
In lambasting the policy at the time, Republicans took their cues from Robert Rector, a senior fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation. In a series of articles, he blasted the Obama administration for being willing to supplant “participation rate requirements” with a “universal engagement system.” The former requires states to make a limited percentage of TANF recipients work or train for a certain number of hours per week or else lose their benefits, and if states fail to do so, then they can lose federal funding.
“‘Universal engagement’ usually means a policy that seeks to have all adult work-eligible TANF recipients engage in constructive activities for at least one hour per week,” Rector wrote in 2012. “Activities are defined very broadly to include things such as visiting a doctor or looking for day care.”
Despite Republican claims that welfare reform had been ruined, all the Obama administration did was to request for states to ask permission to run demonstration projects. No state even applied until 2015, when Ohio Gov. John Kasich ― who happens to be a Republican ― submitted a request that was later denied.
The TANF bill that passed Ways and Means in May, which was sponsored by Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) and co-sponsored by dozens of other Republicans, contains several features of the horror show Rector described in 2012. The legislation would do away with the participation rate requirement and replace it with universal engagement. Instead of focusing on the number of program beneficiaries meeting “work activity” requirements, states would be evaluated on the basis of how many former beneficiaries are getting and maintaining private sector employment.
Republicans weren’t hostile to universal engagement or waivers for state experimentation before the Obama administration proposed them. After all, it’s already pretty easy for states to get around the supposedly holy participation rate requirement. Just by reducing their number of TANF recipients, states get credit that reduces their required participation rates, which are initially set at 50 percent. As of 2016, caseload reduction had helped push participation rate requirements all the way down to zero for 20 states.
Liberal think tanks such as the Center for Law and Social Policy and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have mildly praised the bill. The conservative American Enterprise Institute criticized it for being too lenient with states.
In an interview, Rector said lawmakers listened to criticism from him and the AEI. He said that over the summer, they drafted a new version of the legislation that he now supports because it has tougher penalties for states failing to meet their engagement goals.
“Some of the members that were involved in the bill didn’t understand the scope of the loopholes,” he said. “The bill has been transformed in the last three or four months.”
The Ways and Means Committee did not immediately confirm that the legislation was changed since it passed the committee in May. Anticipating such changes, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in July that it would hurt poor families.