Flexibility for states does not undermine welfare reform

August 24, 2012 | The Patriot-News |  Link to article

In July, the Obama administration announced that it would consider governors' requests for more flexibility in administering work requirements for families in the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (known as TANF) program. 

The Associated Press/2009President Barack Obama's administration instituted a small change to the TANF program that Mitt Romney's campaign is trying to make into a campaign issue.
This came as the result of input from the president's 2011 request for how to provide more flexibility in complying with federal regulations.

An early respondent, Kristen Cox, executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, expressed the state's interest in receiving waiver authority for TANF.

She said, "The lack of focus on outcomes makes the program less about the need to help parents find and retain work and more about the need to assure that parents are active in prescribed [work] activities."

Utah wasn't looking to avoid work requirements - it wanted to put its time and effort into getting and keeping people employed rather than "burdensome documentation and verification" to show that clients were working.

Governors of both parties, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he was Massachusetts governor, have long sought more flexibility in administering the TANF program. Given the bipartisan clamoring for flexibility, the administration's move seemed a sure winner. But that's not exactly what happened.

PolitiFact recently awarded Romney its "Pants on Fire" rating for statements made not only denouncing, but mischaracterizing the president's announcement on the stump and in campaign commercials. In one commercial, we hear: "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check, and ‘welfare to work' goes back to being plain old welfare."

A quick history lesson: TANF - "welfare to work" - passed under President Bill Clinton. It requires recipients to engage in work and sets guidelines for activities that count toward meeting the law's work requirements. Putting people to work obviously tops the list, but job training, internships and education might count as well.

The desired outcome is getting people into the workforce, but education and training are key to keeping them there. However, TANF limits time allotments, non-workplace activities and caps lifetime benefits at five years.

The work participation rule waiver would require that TANF recipients participate in any of a range of "work activities" that might include, among other things, school and employment training. But states also must: prepare a plan for how their approach would be more efficient and effective in promoting work, citing the work activities that would be included; and submit an evaluation plan with performance measures. Failure to meet the performance measures could result in the waiver being revoked.

Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cites the bottom line: "It's really about the underlying program. The real starting place is: What's the most effective program to get this person to work?"

In a Washington Post opinion piece (Aug. 20), Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect asserted that the attacks on the administration's decision are allowed to stand because "Reporters aren't equipped to deal with constant dishonesty, and one-off fact checks aren't enough to stop a lie from gaining currency." This permits politicians and others to "push a false narrative and embed it in the political conversation."

Bouie also suggested a more cynical possibility proposed on Aug. 7 by Greg Sargent, an opinion blogger for the Washington Post's Plum Line - that this is "a clear attempt to resurrect the politics of resentment" - i.e., raising anger at yet one more example of the president giving benefits to lazy, undeserving people with no strings attached.

I hope this is not the case, but my experience suggests that Sargent's words contain more than a grain of truth. Pennsylvania's KEYS (Keystone Education Yields Success) demonstrates how program flexibility can and does work.

A 2010 Center for Law and Social Policy publication cites "data compiled by KEYS program administrators [shows] the average hourly salary of KEYS graduates is $14.77, compared with under $8 an hour for former and current participants in other DPW programs."

The real average might be higher, as the program turns out registered nurses and other professionals who make significantly more. Education, of course, is key, and perhaps we should take that to heart, examine what we hear from all political candidates and commercials and work a little harder to educate ourselves about the issues in this important election year.

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