Why Granting Waivers To States Is Not An Attempt To ‘Gut’ Welfare Reform

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced this week that HHS will grant waivers to states under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) law. The waivers will allow states to experiment in order to improve “welfare to work” programs that help low-income Americans find jobs.

Republicans and the conservative blogosphere have denounced the move, saying it would “gut” the 1996 welfare reform law. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney called it a “misdirected” move that decoupled “the linkage of work and welfare” that “is essential to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life.”

Despite the GOP’s concerns, however, the waiver process will have benefits for a welfare reform law that has struggled to live up to the program that preceded it. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, the waivers and the new requirements would force states to set specific measures that they will have to reach; if they fail, the waiver will be canceled. The waivers will also give the states more flexibility in linking employment and education and tailor ways to better use their limited resources.

Most importantly, CBPP notes, it will increase, not decrease, the focus on employment:

In its waiver announcement, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notes that demonstration projects approved will be “focused on improving employment outcomes” for participants. This is a major step forward. Under the current structure, states can meet their TANF work participation rate — the only measure of state performance — without recipients finding paying jobs. These demonstration projects will help to shift the focus of TANF employment programs from process and “bean counting” (whether recipients participate in programs) to outcomes (whether they actually find and keep jobs).

“This policy is pro-work, and it acknowledges that not all wisdom resides in Washington,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement. That would seem to be welcome news to Republicans, who have decried federal control of programs like Medicare and Medicaid and attempted to send those programs to the states (the House GOP budget, for example, would block grant Medicaid payments to the states).


Republican support for flexibility, Levin said, appears to extend only to reducing benefits to low-income Americans. “Curiously, some of the same voices that pay lip service to the virtues of state flexibility now appear to oppose providing waivers under the TANF program,” he said. “It turns out that Republican support for state flexibility is a one-way street — they support flexibility when it comes to reducing assistance for needy Americans looking for work, but they oppose giving states greater discretion in helping people find work.”

While Republicans oppose the waivers, states are coming out in favor of them. Even though Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) criticized the waiver plan, the state’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, want to see it implemented. “Utah is especially interested in the development of waiver authority in the TANF grant,” Herbert wrote in a letter to HHS after the decision was announced.