Obama Administration Stirs Up Storm by Offering States Flexibility to Test New Work Strategies

About two weeks ago, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services invited states to seek waivers from some of the restrictions in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families rules.

No waiver from the five-year lifetime limit on per-family costs the federal government will partly pay for. No waiver for anything that seems likely to make enrollment even more difficult than it often already is.

But states can ask for waivers from the regular work activity requirements if they offer a promising alternative approach to “helping parents successfully prepare for, find and retain employment,” plus outcome-focused targets and related evaluation plans.

You’d think Republicans would stand up and cheer. Aren’t they constantly telling us states need more flexibility to “design programs around the needs of their own citizens?”

Not apparently when the Obama administration offers it.

Congressman Dave Camp (R-MI), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, promptly raised a public fuss.

They assert that the Secretary has no authority to grant waivers from the work requirements. And what I’ve read thus far suggests there may be a genuine legal question here.

But as a policy matter, the waivers make a lot of sense.

As things stand now, TANF rules require states to ensure that half the parents in their caseloads are engaged, generally for an average of 30 hours a week, in one or some combination of work activities. These are also specified in the rules.

Doesn’t matter whether the activities are appropriately tailored to the individual needs and skills of the participants.

Doesn’t matter whether they’re likely to lead to reasonably secure jobs that pay enough to “end … dependence on public benefits” — one of the four major goals of the law.

It’s the participation rate and hours that count.

And documenting these takes time caseworkers could be using to help parents move from welfare to suitable work. Many states have complained about this, the Acting Assistant Secretary responsible for TANF says.

The activities requirement, however, also gives them an incentive to short-circuit training and other services in favor of pushing parents into the first job — any job — they can find.

They’re off TANF, but into “unstable, no-benefits, low-wage jobs,” says Legal Momentum in one of its many research-based briefs.

Experts have recommended for some years that Congress refocus the TANF work component on outcomes instead of activities when it reauthorizes the program.

Reauthorization is now nearly two years overdue. And Congress won’t get to it this year for sure.

The waivers would provide a basis for informed decisions — results of actual experiments, in fact — when it finally does take up the task.

The HHS Secretary has suggested some projects states might want to try. Hard to believe these wouldn’t improve outcomes, if designed and managed well.

For example, states could:

  • See what happens if they let at least some participants fulfill their work activity requirements in vocational training or vocation-related education beyond the current one-year limit. We know, anecdotally, what a huge difference this could make.
  • Count toward their participation rate requirement parents in jobs subsidized by TANF funds, even though they’re not getting cash benefits. In other words, revive one of the more popular uses of the now-expired TANF Emergency Contingency Fund.
  • Strengthen linkages between TANF and their other workforce development programs. Utah, Senator Hatch’s home state, indicated interest in this last year — and has reportedly jumped at the chance for a waiver.
  • Improve collaborations between these programs and their postsecondary education systems so that participants could pursue “multi-year career pathways” that combine work and learning.
  • Adopt new strategies for more effectively serving people with disabilities, including participation and outcome measures designed specifically for them.

None of these ideas is revolutionary. Nor are the others the waiver memo mentions.

And it should be pretty obvious that they don’t “gut welfare reforms,” as Senator Hatch claims, echoing the ferociously right-wing Heritage Foundation.

They don’t even do away with the link between welfare and work, as Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney alleges, because work and preparation for work are at the core of the waiver initative.

LaDonna Pavetti at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities speaks from years of experience with TANF. The pilot projects states can run with the waivers, she says, “will strengthen welfare reform and the ability of states to move parents from welfare to work.”

What’s wrong with that — except that the effort comes from Democrats?

3 Responses to Obama Administration Stirs Up Storm by Offering States Flexibility to Test New Work Strategies

  1. Sylvia Randolph says:

    It’s about damn time.

  2. […] observed awhile ago that the Republicans were making a fuss about waivers the Obama administration has […]

  3. […] I’ve written before, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told states that they could get waivers […]

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