The Obama administration has opened the door to changes in welfare reform that could destroy it from within. Federal officials have invited states to request “waivers” of the normal rules that govern putting welfare recipients to work. They describe these rules as mere “paperwork” that gets in the way of helping recipients find jobs. To the contrary—the rules are essential to everything reform has achieved.
Currently, states are supposed to have at least half their adult recipients active in “work activities.” To be counted as “working,” recipients must be in “work activities” for at least 30 hours a week, and 20 of those hours must be in actual work or work search, as against education or training. Local officials must document those hours. In the name of “flexibility,” the proposed waivers would allow states to posit goals for welfare other than immediate employment. The new programs would hold recipients and agencies less accountable for definite activity and actual work. They would probably reduce the working hours required, allow more training to count as work, and demand less documentation.
But experience has shown that the current rules are essential to achieving employment in welfare. Putting recipients to work is popular but difficult. Welfare mothers must be given child care, set to looking for work, then helped to keep jobs even as they still receive some aid. Two-thirds of mothers who satisfy the work test do so through actual work. The task is tough enough so that both clients and agencies are constantly tempted to give up and go back to just paying out welfare without work. The current rules resist that.
Welfare agencies were first allowed to put welfare mothers to work in 1967, but few did so until Congress required them to do so as a condition of federal funding. Over time, the proportions of cases that had to enter work programs was increased, reaching 50 percent with the welfare reform law of 1996. Various credits reduce the target for many states. The share of recipients in work activities peaked nationally at 38 percent in 1999, falling to 29 percent in 2009. The struggle to put welfare recipients to work is far from won.
Equally, welfare mothers had to work serious hours to be regarded as working, yet not more than they could do, a compromise now fixed at 30 hours. And work had to mean actual work, not something else. In the early days, welfare work programs sent most clients into school or training, hoping to get them better jobs later. But that way few actually went to work. Hence the current demand that most of the 30 required hours be in actual work, while still allowing some time for remediation.
The administration should not undercut these rules by executive fiat. The current system has earned broad support. It reflects over 40 years of experience by policymakers of both parties. To yield to state demands for “flexibility” risks dismantling the edifice that had brought positive change. The localities most committed to work, such as New York City, have not resisted the requirements but built their welfare systems around them, to good effects.
The rules made welfare reform serious. They showed that work was more than a preachment. That motivated many poor mothers to go to work directly, rather than going on welfare at all. The idea that most the states will enforce work on their own if only Washington gets out of the way is wishful thinking. States get much credit for reform, but many had to be pushed into it, and that is still true today. To waive these rules would take us backward.
[Lawrence M. Mead is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of several books on poverty and welfare reform.]