In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress worked with a Democratic president to reform a welfare system that was failing the American people.
At the time, according to the Cato Handbook for Congress, 65 percent of recipient families were dependent on welfare for eight years or more. By losing sight of welfare’s goal to be a safety net and a bridge to self-sufficiency, we allowed too many to become trapped in poverty and dependency. President Bill Clinton rightly rallied on the nation to “end welfare as we knew it.”
Together, we threw out what was not working and created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The new system promoted work as a central focus on helping low-income families out of poverty and required individuals seeking assistance to work, prepare for work or look for work as a condition of benefits.
The results were outstanding. According to the Health and Human Services website, welfare caseloads were cut 57 percent, with most finding work and seeing their incomes rise. Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, told the Senate Finance Committee in June that poverty among single mothers fell by 30 percent, and, per HHS, their employment and earnings increased significantly. Just five years after enactment, poverty among African-American children fell to its lowest level, according to Haskins.
Consider this: According to gop.gov, even with 23 million Americans struggling to find a full-time job and in the midst of a persistently weak economy, the number of children in female-headed households living in poverty today is lower than before welfare reform was signed into law.
Reforms like these should be the model for legislative and bipartisan cooperation to do what is best for our country. We found success by empowering the American people and harnessing the American spirit.
Unfortunately, today these reforms are under attack. In July, the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services began working to turn back these landmark reforms by legislative fiat.
Under the guise of state flexibility, the administration is attempting to gut the reforms by redefining what constitutes work. By HHS standards, individuals could be considered as working for doing something productive with their time “for at least one hour per week.”
It also could reopen a loophole Congress closed in 2006 after the nonpartisan watchdog Government Accountability Office found that some states were classifying personal journaling, bed rest and weight loss as work activities.
To make matters worse, this end run around Congress is being done without any legal basis. While the law provides limited and explicit waiver authority, nowhere does it provide such power over the work requirements. A recent GAO report found that previous administrations have said they did not have the authority to waive the requirements.
This week, the House acted on a bipartisan basis to rebuff the Obama Administration’s effort to gut the welfare to work requirement. With so many out of work, our focus should be on creating jobs and opportunity, not backing off our commitment to helping those who need assistance reach self-sufficiency.
Our effort would disapprove of the Obama Administration’s effort to weaken welfare reform, prevent the administration from implementing its plan to waive the work requirement and preserve these critical reforms.
These reforms gave millions of American families a hand up to get out of poverty. Repealing them now and returning to a broken system is no way to move our country forward.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., serves the 1st Congressional District of Georgia, which includes Bryan County.