The End of Welfare Reform

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 13 2012 9:38 AM

The End of Welfare Reform

Is there any information out there that refutes the apocalyptic Heritage take on HHS's new TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) waiver? Has the HHS "gutted" welfare reform?

It's at least cracked open the door for the people who might gut it. Robert Rector and Kiki Bradley write that section 1115 of Social Security law gives HHS limited waiver authority. "The work provisions of the TANF program are contained in section 407 (entitled, appropriately, 'mandatory work requirements')," they write. "Critically, this section, as well as most other TANF requirements, are deliberately not listed in section 1115; they are not waiveable."

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Section 115 allows waivers for any "experimental, pilot, or demonstration project which, in the judgment of the Secretary, is likely to assist in promoting the objectives of title I [education for the disabled], X [family planning], XIV [aid to the disabled], XVI [social security disability], or XIX [medical assistance], or part A or D of title IV [grants to state for child aid]." Nope, nothing there about work requirements. How does the Obama administration get around that?

While the TANF work participation requirements are contained in section 407, section 402(a)(1)(A)(iii) requires that the state plan “[e]nsure that parents and caretakers receiving assistance under the program engage in work activities in accordance with section 407.”  Thus, HHS has authority to waive compliance with this 402 requirement and authorize a state to test approaches and methods other than those set forth in section 407, including definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures, and the calculation of participation rates.

Mickey Kaus, who owns this beat, ponders what it all means. The only non-"gutting" theory I can come up gives HHS rather a lot of credit. It cites waiver memos from Utah and Tennessee for proof that the states are ready for more flexibility. Those states aren't likely to weaken the standards of TANF work programs, are they? But I want to see what other states try and do here, and how they interpret this.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.