The Right And Welfare Reform: Or, The Problem With Work Requirements When There Are No Jobs

by evanmcmurry

The right wing blogotwittersphere is agog at a Health and Human Services directive released late Thursday that grants states greater leeway in apportioning welfare payments with regard to an individual’s ability to work. Specifically, they’re up in arms over the directive’s elimination of the reporting mandate for welfare’s work requirement—the part of the 1996 welfare reform package necessitating welfare recipients participate in the labor force as a condition of aid.

What’s the big deal about a reporting requirement? Conservatives see it as an end route to eliminating the work requirement itself (if you don’t have to report it, you don’t have to do it), allowing bums to lie around on the government’s dime without so much as glancing at the want ads. Via Mickey Kaus, from the Daily Caller‘s Day Center For Cranky Bloggers:

Rector and Bradley of Heritage (among the first to attack Obama’s action) make the case that the law’s work requirements were specifically designed to not be waivable, and that Obama is using HHS’s authority to waive state reporting requirements as a tricky way of voiding the underlying substantive requirements that are to be reported about.

Or, if you’re the National Review: “Obama Ends Welfare Reform As We Know It.”

Welfare reform replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The underlying concept of welfare reform was that able-bodied adults should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving welfare aid.

The welfare reform law was very successful. In the four decades prior to welfare reform, the welfare caseload never experienced a significant decline. But, in the four years after welfare reform, the caseload dropped by nearly half. Employment surged and child poverty among blacks and single mothers plummeted to historic lows. What was the catalyst for these improvements? Rigorous new federal work requirements contained in TANF.

This is proof to the right of their strange and consistent belief that Obama is creating an entitlement society not for any policy-based long-term societal improvement, but simply as an end in and of itself, as if he needs something for show and tell at the Democratic National Convention.

Or something else is up—like unemployment. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act no doubt helped a lot of people off the dole and into the workforce, but it was only able to do so because there was a workforce with room for them. The last 90s were an excellent time to be wanting a job in the United States:

Employment Growth 1960-2000

(via BLS)

When there’s a rapidly growing labor market, it’s easy to chide able-bodied people on welfare; in 1998, you could get a job hanging Help Wanted signs.

Since then:

Employment growth, 2000-2010

(via The Big Picture)

Even at its bubbly peak, the labor market vastly underperformed during Bush’s administration, to say nothing of the financial collapse he left on our doorstep that shed more than 3,000,000 jobs in six months. This not only ballooned the number of people in need of government assistance, but drastically shrunk the labor market they were supposed to joining as a condition for that assistance. In 2008, you couldn’t get a job taking down Help Wanted signs.

Conservatives don’t want to bring up contextual economic factors in the viability of work requirements because it troubles their ideological cleaving of the world into Producers and Takers; there’s simply no ability for the rigid Randian worldview to accommodate people who want to work, can’t find a job, and need assistance.

But there’s also no eliding that the 1996 work requirement was designed with the late-90s booming labor market in mind. A weak economy turns this policy reform into a contradiction: how do you maintain a work requirement for people who can’t find work in order to get the subsidy they need precisely because they can’t find work?

Kaus knows this, though he buries it in his unusually wordy-for-him post:

Thanks to the prolonged recession, there aren’t enough jobs for welfare recipients to take. Even if there is a job shortage, the answer isn’t to get rid of the work requirements but to provide useful, public jobs (that recipients would then be required to perform, on pain of losing their checks, just like regular workers). You could call such jobs “workfare,” but in effect they would be something like a backdoor WPA.

Well, what a great idea. Federal stimulus in the form of employment? Obama should immediately propose that nine months ago. By the by, what do you figure the odds are of a massive WPA-style public employment program passing through the House of Representatives right now?

I’m with Kaus when he criticizes the directive for being open-ended. Obama loses nothing by giving the waiver a duration of, say, twelve months, with option of being renewed for another year. If nothing, it would paint the effort more as the stopgap that it actually is; and I generally agree with Reagan’s quip that a government program created can never be destroyed.

But this isn’t the end of welfare reform as we know it; it’s an acknowledgement that welfare reform assumed a robust economy, and the absence of that strength created a contradiction that left the very people who needed assistance without it. This directive should provide some of that assistance. The free market will survive; and so, hopefully, will the families suffering under it.