Is the Obama administration targeting welfare reform?
This long-running battle between work hawks and doves explains why so much rides on the language of the Information Memorandum. When HHS asks for innovative strategies for “helping families succeed in employment,” does that mean more failed job-training programs and services of dubious relevance? There’s good reason to think so. Even after welfare reform was passed, states continued to demonstrate unusual creativity in defining work—excuse me, “work activities.” A 2005 General Accounting Office study of ten states found that five considered “caring for a disabled dependent” a work activity (it was categorized as a form of community service); six included substance-abuse treatment, three accepted domestic-violence counseling, and five accepted English as a Second Language classes. So would drug counseling count as a strategy to “succeed in employment” and be acceptable grounds for a waiver? It wouldn’t be surprising.
Not all reformers are so sure that the Obama administration wants to define welfare reform down. Ron Haskins, who worked on the 1996 law as a House Ways and Means Committee staffer and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institute, believes that the “work-firsters” have won the ideological battle. Given the enduring popularity of the reform, he thinks, the administration is unlikely to risk softening work rules and expanding welfare. At any rate, “No state wants their rolls to grow,” he says.