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The Nation

Needy Families Get Scant Assistance Amid Election Year Politics

“A partisan disgrace,” declared Speaker John Boehner.

“President Obama now wants to strip the established work requirements from welfare,” Governor Mitt Romney charged.

“The end of welfare reform as we know it,” warned Robert “You Aren’t Poor If You Have Air Conditioning” Rector, of the Heritage Foundation.

The source of all of this consternation?  

A memo from Health and Human Services (HHS) announcing that it will “allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families… The Secretary is interested in using her authority to approve waiver demonstrations to challenge states to engage in a new round of innovation that seeks to find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment.” 

In short, let states explore new ways to get better results from their efforts to employ low-income people in good jobs.

Sound familiar? Giving states more flexibility to run their Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs? The notion that local folks might have some of the best ideas on how to help people in their jurisdictions? 

It’s straight out of the Republican playbook. Only this time around the proposal is from a Democratic Administration, so suddenly it’s not kosher.

The fact is that in 2005 Governor Romney and 28 other Republican governors wrote a letter requesting more “flexibility to manage their TANF programs and effectively serve low-income populations,” including “increased waiver authority.” Indeed the New York Times reports that two of the first five states to express interest in the new waiver policy—Utah and Nevada—have Republican Governors.

“It’s really unfortunate that politics have totally overtaken this in Washington,” Liz Schott, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), told me. “This is an area where there is actually not that much disagreement that TANF programs should be focused on the best ways to help people prepare for, find and keep jobs.”

I asked Schott to walk me through exactly what these waivers would do because deciphering this stuff is kind of like settling down to a good novel written in legalese.


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Currently, much of what a state does in administering TANF is driven by an effort to meet a target “work participation rate”—which usually means having more than 50 percent of its TANF recipients (including 90 percent of two-parent families) working 30 hours per week. If a state doesn’t meet that target rate, it can face steep fines from the federal government, as we are currently seeing in Ohio.

As a result, states aren’t necessarily as motivated by a desire to connect families to good, sustainable employment as much as they are looking simply to move people into activities that fulfill the work participation requirement.

For example, maybe someone is steered into a job-training program with no job (or a very low-wage job) on the other end; and then the individual repeats that program with the same disappointing result. Or maybe the person performs a “community service” with no wage and no prospects for advancement—like sweeping the county garage, or cleaning toilets in an office building, or filing papers for a non-profit.

“Currently it’s all about whether an individual is participating in certain activities for a certain number of hours,” said Schott. “Whether that’s the right activity or an effective activity to find and keep a good job is largely irrelevant.”

Schott said that a waiver might allow a state to decide, for example, that it’s a priority for TANF recipients to obtain a GED, or to complete two years of post-secondary or vocational education.

“A state could decide that a single parent working 20 hours, plus taking care of a kid, plus going to school, is going to interfere with her ability to be successful as a parent and a worker in the economy,” said Schott. “So it could request that these parents be permitted to go to school full-time and have that count towards the required work participation rate.”

Other waiver possibilities outlined in the memo include strategies to serve people with disabilities more effectively (the employment rate for people with disabilities in 2010 was a stunning 18.6 percent); and counting people in subsidized jobs towards meeting a state’s work participation rate.

Any waiver is subject to meeting “interim performance targets” and a “federally approved evaluation.” In other words, the pilot projects have to demonstrate that they are improving employment outcomes for low-income people in order to continue.

Republicans in the House and Senate have already introduced bills that would deny HHS waiver authority. What is striking about this overreaction isn’t just GOP leaders’ hypocrisy on the issue of allowing states more flexibility, but that they went apoplectic over some pretty modest reforms—reforms that are focused on jobs and measurable outcomes. Congress has put off TANF reauthorization for a couple of years running now, but at some point—I’m guessing in 2013—it won’t be able to ignore that obligation any longer. 

Can you imagine the outcry if there were good, aggressive reforms offered by Democrats—the kind found in Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s RISE Act? Among the smart changes Moore calls for are: adjusting each state’s block grant for inflation so it’s no longer frozen at 1996 funding levels, unchanged for the past 16 years; allowing education and job training to count towards work requirements; providing childcare for all work-eligible parents; and prohibiting time limits of less than 60 months.

Now that would indeed be the end of welfare reform as we know it. Or at least the end of some of its most egregious failures—and the beginning of a system with the interests of poor people at its heart.

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Greg Kaufmann

Greg Kaufmann

Greg Kaufmann is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Editor of

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