Romney's Thin Welfare-Reform Attack

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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Mitt Romney is up with an ad attacking Barack Obama for gutting the work requirements in the 1996 welfare reform. Romney's ad says, "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work, and you wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you a welfare check." This is false.

There was some reason to be nervous about the original request for waiver proposals from the Department of Health and Human Services. While HHS was not talking about abolishing the work requirements in welfare reform, it did open the door to reforms that could weaken them.

For example, one of the examples that HHS gives of programs it might approve under a waiver is "systematically extending the period in which vocational educational training or job search/readiness programs count toward participation rates" -- i.e., making it easier for states to count welfare recipients in training programs as though they had gone back to work.

Such a program could be used to get welfare recipients into long, but useful, training programs that would improve their human capital and make them more employable in the long term. Or it could be used to allow welfare recipients to participate in non-work programs of dubious value instead of getting jobs.

But in response to a request for information from Republicans in Congress, HHS clarified its waiver offer with a concrete benchmark:

The Department is providing a very limited waiver opportunity for states that develop a plan to measurably increase the number of beneficiaries who find and hold down a job. Specifically, Governors must commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state's past performance. States must also demonstrate clear progress toward that goal no later than one year after their programs take effect. If they fail, their waiver will be rescinded. And if a Governor proposes a plan that undercuts the work requirements established in welfare reform, that plan will be rejected.

In other words, HHS will offer states more flexibility on the work requirements in welfare reform. But if the way states use that flexibility doesn't get more people from welfare to work, they'll have their waivers taken away.

This is exactly the way that HHS should use waivers in means-tested entitlement programs: allowing states to test new approaches, and holding them accountable for results.

We should watch the implementation of welfare waivers and make sure HHS's actions match its statements. But there is no reason to describe the waiver offer, as currently described by HHS, as "gutting" welfare reform.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)


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