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Policy: Entitlements

Day 8: Obama edict repealed 1996 welfare reform's work requirement

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White House,Conn Carroll,Barack Obama,Entitlements,Analysis,Executive Power Series

Part eight of the Washington Examiner's 10-part series "With the Stroke of a Pen: How Obama abuses executive power to make the law of the land."

There were plenty of reasons why President Obama’s $787 trillion economic stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, received no Republican votes in the House of Representatives.

But one rarely mentioned reason was tucked away in the more than 1,000 pages of crony capitalist spending -- a provision ending the work requirement for the food stamp program.

When the Republican Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton reformed welfare in 1996, among the many changes was to add a work requirement to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.

Liberals always hated the work requirement, and the stimulus was a perfect opportunity to repeal it. The results have been entirely predictable. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report found that the number of able-bodied American adults on food stamps has more than doubled, from 1.9 million in 2008 to 3.9 million in 2010.

About this series

On Nov. 16, 2010, just days after voters gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives, the progressive think tank Center for American Progress published a report titled "The Power of the President."

Obama-Biden Transition Project Chairman John Podesta introduced the report, writing that "in the aftermath of this month's midterm congressional elections, pundits and politicians across the ideological spectrum are focusing on how difficult it will be for President Barack Obama to advance his policy priorities through Congress."

"Some debate whether the administration should tack to the center and compromise with the new House leadership," Podesta continued.

"As a former White House chief of staff, I believe those to be the wrong preoccupations. President Obama's ability to govern the country as chief executive presents an opportunity to demonstrate strength, resolve, and a capacity to get things done," Podesta said.

Not only did Obama almost immediately embrace the report's call for maximizing executive power to achieve progressive ends without Congress, it even branded the effort "We Can't Wait," thus advertising the fact that Obama had abandoned all pretense of following the U.S. Constitution's carefully drawn separation-of-powers doctrine.

In this Washington Examiner series, Senior Writer Conn Carroll documents the many times Obama has flagrantly abused executive authority to advance his liberal agenda without congressional approval.

The top 10 instances will be examined over the next two weeks, and more will come later.

Stories in this series

1. Immigration amnesty by executive memo

2. The employer mandate delay

3. War in Libya

4. The illegal Solyndra contract modification

5. Rewriting federal education law by waiver

6. Unconstitutional NLRB appointees

7. The Yucca Mountain delay

8. Gutting welfare reform

9. The Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium

10. Regulating the Internet

The number of Americans receiving food stamps has continued to rise, even though the Obama economy is, supposedly, in recovery. In May 2009, less than 36 million Americans were on food stamps, compared to 48 million today.

But Obama was not satisfied with rolling back the work requirement just for the food stamp program. On July 12, 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services issued an “information memorandum” inviting states to apply for waivers to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Buried in that memo was a single paragraph functionally gutting the federal welfare system’s overall work requirement.

The old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program also had nominal work requirements. But thanks to pages and pages of loopholes in the statute, any governor could use those loopholes to evade the work requirement.

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act changed all that by vastly simplifying what did, and did not, qualify as “work” for welfare’s work requirement.

It also set strict new work-participation rates for states that, if not met, would lead to reduced federal funding. It was these strict new welfare-to-work requirements that the Left always hated.

Congressional Republicans mistrusted President Clinton on the issue, and they knew future Democratic presidents would try to water down the welfare work requirements.

So they put the definition of “work activities” for determining welfare eligibility in a separate section of the bill, Section 407, and explicitly said that Section 407 could not be waived.

But that is exactly what the Obama welfare memo did. It claimed that Section 1115 of the welfare reform law, a section granting the HHS secretary the power to grant waivers for state “demonstration projects,” also empowered waiving Section 407.

Notably absent from Section 1115's list of sections of the welfare reform law that the HHS secretary may waive is Section 407.

Once Section 407 was killed, states were free to redefine “work” under the welfare law. In the past, states have successfully labeled such activities as “personal journaling,” “motivational reading” and “weightless promotion” as “work,” thus allowing them to receive full federal funding without actually getting anyone off welfare and into a job. If the Obama welfare memo stands, the 1996 welfare reform law will have been repealed by executive fiat.

And perhaps welfare reform should be undone ... or at least the welfare-to-work requirements should be delayed until the U.S. economy actually recovers and the unemployment rate falls below 5 percent.

But if those changes should be made, they should be made, legally, through Congress, not by Obama’s discretion alone.

Conn Carroll is a senior writer for the Washington Examiner.

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