The Heritage Foundation today spread a falsehood about a change the Obama administration is instituting in the 1996 welfare reform law that has rapidly spread through the right-wing blogosphere. Letting Heritage and the right wing get away with this lie would do serious harm to people trying to pull themselves out of poverty.
Heritage headlined its Morning Bell email, "Obama's Imperial Presidency Guts Welfare Reform." Actually, if President Obama got all imperial on us and actually gutted welfare reform, that might not be such a bad thing, given how the law has actually failed in many respects to help people in poverty to get the economic support they need.
But what the Obama administration is actually doing through a memorandum issued Thursday by the Department of Health and Human Services is allowing states to test more effective ways to move people who are in the welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, into the workforce and into economic independence—actually a bedrock conservative principle.
"This is not a back-door way to get out of the work requirement," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy. Instead, the explicitly states that the agency "is interested in more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs that offer opportunities for earnings and advancement that will allow participants to avoid dependence on government benefits."
"There was a growing consensus that the current work requirements were making people track a lot of things that waste a lot of time," Lower-Basch said, while not allowing states to give welfare recipients credit for taking steps that would actually help them get back to work, such as getting a GED if they dropped out of high school.
The whole point of the waiver rules is "building better programs to help people succeed," she said.
LaDonna Pavetti at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has also looked at the HHS memorandum and finds the right-wing reaction "ironic, to say the least."
For one thing, they beg an obvious question: why would anyone oppose efforts to merely test whether there are better ways to connect people to jobs? For another, the complaints are coming from some of the same people who usually argue for giving states more power to run programs and who often seek state waivers in other programs.
Among other things, Pavetti writes that the waivers will "help to shift the focus of TANF employment programs from process and “bean counting” (whether recipients participate in programs) to outcomes (whether they actually find and keep jobs)." They will also help "encourage and support investments in education and training."
Late Friday The Huffington Post chronicled how presidential candidate Mitt Romney and congressional Republican leaders piled on to criticize the offer of waivers "despite the fact that Republican-led states sought the policy change." Utah was one of the leading states pushing for these waivers.
One of the governors who had been seeking waivers from HHS from welfare work requirements was conservative Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. But that waiver, rejected by the Obama administration, was for a state that had been cutting its funding for work support programs for welfare recipients and which was facing a federal fine for not meeting its work requirements for welfare recipients since 2006.
While this was happening "poverty rates in Ohio have climbed for over a decade," with one in 10 Ohio children living in a family that is below the poverty line, wrote Jon Honeck, public policy director for The Center for Community Solutions in a commentary in the Columbus Dispatch last month. "With some help for work-related supports, a family can be put on the road to self-sufficiency, which was the original goal of TANF. Lifting families and children out of extreme poverty should be a priority, not an afterthought."
The intent of the HHS memorandum is clear to anyone who reads it, and it is impossible to read into the plain language of the memorandum anything that smacks of "the end of welfare reform." So is the intent of the campaign against it: to keep "welfare reform" from being anything other than grudgingly given crumbs given in a way that punishes poor people for being poor.
The disinformation being spread by Heritage and the right-wing commentariat on this one is of the "pants on fire" variety, more proof that the conservative establishment will go to any length to demonize all things Obama while avoiding intelligent, fact-based discussion of economic policy.