07/23/2012 01:15 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2012

State Waivers for TANF Can Provide True Pathway Out of Poverty

Recently the Obama Administration took a common sense step in reforming a program that has long been in need of repair -- the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Through a recent rule change, the Administration will now allow states to apply for waivers that could grant them some flexibility in implementing their TANF programs. The new guidance will bolster the law and allow states to tailor their TANF programs to meet their specific needs, while making a renewed commitment to move people off welfare and into good jobs. Governors from both political parties across the nation have requested flexibility in implementing welfare reform time and time again and it is past time that we heed their call.

While TANF, or "Welfare Reform," has been celebrated by both Republicans and Democrats, there are many flaws that currently exist in this program that is supposed to provide a pathway out of poverty for Americans. Unfortunately, welfare recipients have been ill-served by this program, often finding themselves trapped in an endless cycle that keeps them impoverished through rigid guidelines, red tape and lack of access to opportunity.

I have been outspoken regarding my concerns about the TANF program which, since its passage in 1996, has shifted the focus of welfare to a series of rules and restrictions -- rather than a focus on effective job preparation and placement, though that was one of its purported goals. Sadly, TANF has never taken into consideration the importance of education and training in helping recipients gain meaningful employment.

I understand this struggle. I was once a welfare recipient and am very aware of the successes and failures of this critical safety net. There are those that would have us believe that those receiving TANF benefits are lazy, shiftless, freeloaders who are just sitting around thinking of another way to suckle from the government teat.

My fellow Wisconsinite, Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) even weighed in on the issue recently in an op-ed in the Cap Times saying, "... Abandoning work requirements will return our nation to the days of rampant welfare abuse and incentivize an underground economy where abusers take a government check while also engaging in illicit commerce of all kinds."

This could not be further from the truth. As a former recipient of these services I can honestly say that the overwhelming majority of TANF recipients are hard-working Americans who are down on their luck, and just want an opportunity to better their lives and those of their family through work and access to education. Furthermore, I find it interesting that Gov. Thompson would seek to rail against an idea that he supported while serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bush.

This waiver program could allow greater education and training opportunities, which can expand the possibilities for beneficiaries and our overall labor market. It helps to cut the red tape that has held this program hostage and urges states to improve their efforts to place people into jobs, rather than keeping them enrolled in restricted job-search activities. Additionally, although these waiver opportunities will be limited and do not alter the employment requirements of TANF, the proposal will encourage states to draft plans that will quantifiably increase the number of welfare beneficiaries who find and retain employment.

I am grateful the Administration and HHS have chosen to take these positive steps to ensure that TANF is an effective program that will successfully serve our vulnerable populations. It is my sincere hope that my home state of Wisconsin and all states will apply for a TANF waiver so that we can truly begin to build a strong, skilled workforce and strengthen our economy.