Sixteen years ago this week, President Clinton signed the 1996 bipartisan welfare reform which he lauded as “ending welfare as we know it.” This anniversary offers President Obama a unique opportunity to honor the historic achievement.
At the heart of the 1996 law was a simple principle: no one in America should get money from the government for doing nothing. That’s why we put strong work requirements at the center of the reform. We would help people get back on their feet, and after two years, they had to get a job. Patrick Moynihan characterized the proposal as “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction.”
And as a state senator from Illinois, our current president opposed it too. Barack Obama said he “did not entirely agree with it and probably would have voted against” it. He later said he was “not a huge supporter” of the reforms.
Two-thirds of welfare recipients got a job or went to school. Within 4 years, 4.2 million people rose up from poverty. In five years, child poverty was at an all-time low, having dropped by 25 percent.
The work requirement was the key to achieving these gains.
President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services issued a memo announcing it would grant states waivers on the work requirements.
The HHS memo declared the authority to “waive compliance with [work requirements] and authorize a state to test approaches and methods other than those set forth in [the section pertaining to work requirements], including definitions of work activities and engagement.”
The memo then proceeds to give examples of “projects states may want to consider” – most of which are attempts either to dilute the work requirements or expand the definition of “work”.
Jay Carney stated angrily that “any request from any state that undercuts the work requirement in welfare reform will be rejected.”
The apparent conflict between the Obama administration’s memo unilaterally empowering itself to waive the work requirement and the Obama White House’s denial that will ever take advantage of this new authority present the President with an opportunity on this 16th anniversary of the law: If he has no intention of waiving the requirements, he should denounce the memo and he should direct the secretary of HHS to officially rescind it.



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