Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney claimed yesterday that a waiver issued by the Obama administration is a devastating blow to the 1996 bipartisan welfare reform act. Romney is wrong – about what the waiver says and how welfare reform policies are carried out in Illinois and across the country.
His remarks echo past Romney admonitions of “dependency” even as the block grant that emerged from welfare reform is increasingly ineffective at helping families in need.
In a speech yesterday at Acme Industries manufacturing firm in Elk Grove Village, Romney vowed to “end a culture of dependency” and “include more work in welfare.” On the Romney campaign Web site today is an editorial by Bob McDonnell, the Republican governor of Virginia, called “Obama Decree Guts Bipartisan Consensus.”
“In 1996, President Bill Clinton worked with Republicans in Congress to reform our nation’s costly and ineffective welfare programs,” McDonnell writes. “Most would agree that the measure has been a great success – except, apparently, President Barack Obama whose administration last month took steps to remove one of its central requirements.”
The central requirement is that a minimum level of participants (at least 50 percent with the rate varying by state and household status) in the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF) block grant program must be employed or engaged in work activities such as a job training program.
But the July 12 memorandum issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to states reinforces this requirement. George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, writes that the waiver “provides more flexibility to innovate in the TANF program with the goal of helping more families find jobs and move toward self-sufficiency.”
In other words, Romney associated a “culture of dependency” with a waiver meant to encourage recipient independence.
Liz Schott, senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities of Washington, D.C. explains that the waiver was a response to federal reporting requirements that prevented a few states from instituting employment programs for TANF recipients. The waiver, Schott says, is irrelevant to work requirements. “States still have to require work participation and that is not changing,” Schott says.
While Romney mischaracterized the waiver, the larger problem is his mischaracterization of TANF. Other federal aid efforts such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, have truly expanded in the Obama administration. TANF has not.
TANF is a block grant program that in its first year of 1997 doled out $16.5 billion total across the country, including $585 million to Illinois. In 2012, it still provided $16.5 billion nationally and $585 million to the Prarie State. The number was never adjusted for inflation and the block grant is now worth 29 percent less than when it was first implemented.
While the money available went down, need went up. According to figures compiled by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, between 1997 and 2012 the number of Illinois families who lived in poverty jumped from 203,000 to 278,000.
As Progress Illinois has reported, the simultaneous decline of federal and state money forced Illinois into a zero sum game with its child poverty programs. More money for child-care assistance meant less direct aid for families living in poverty. More direct aid for families living in poverty meant smaller payments to child-care providers.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities concludes in a grim report released yesterday that “TANF provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of converting basic safety net programs into block grants.” The safety net for the nation’s poorest families has grown “weaker, not stronger” under welfare reform.
None of this analysis will likely make a Romney speech. Instead, the candidate suggests safety net programs are morally wrong, a theme of his campaigns.
In his first bid for the presidency, Romney delivered a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. that vaguely derided government induced dependency. “Dependency is death to initiative, risk-taking, and opportunity. Dependency is a culture killing drug,” Romney said at the February 2008 conference.
The welfare theme, of course, also harkens back to a presidential campaign tactic popularized by Ronald Reagan of the “welfare queen” who drives around in a Cadillac cashing government checks.
Even if the policy outcomes were bad, a positive political consequence of welfare reform was that Republicans put this particular stereotype on the back burner. Perhaps Romney is bringing it back.
Image: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta