Shouldn't Republicans be making more of a fuss about the provision in the stimulus bill--both House and Senate versions, apparently--that spends $2-3 billion to the states for "temporary welfare payments"? I initially thought Charles Hurt of the N.Y. Post was being alarmist when he suggested the provision would "drastically undo two decades of welfare reforms." The essence of the 1996 reform was ending the individual legal entitlement to AFDC (cash aid to single mothers, basically) and replacing it with state-run programs that, in theory, require recipients to enter the work force. The stimulus bill doesn't rip up that basic deal, as I understand it. But it is part of a larger liberal campaign** to use the recession to weaken work requirements and let millions of non-working single mothers back on the welfare rolls. Specifically, it would apparently reward states that expand their welfare caseloads--even if the increase is only the product of loosened work requirements rather than a worsening local economy.Are the Democrats really trying to take one of the most successful reforms of the past decade and weaken it so that they can get rid of the work requirements? One liberal hopes so.
Nothing wrong with helping states avoid anti-stimulating cuts in a recession. Nothing wrong with targeting money to the poorest, who are most likely to spend it quickly. But why use the aid specifically to encourage expansion of welfare? This isn't "welfare" as only conservative Republicans would define it--i.e. any means-tested assistance. This is welfare as everyone would define it--cash assistance to able-bodied single mothers (or fathers) who may or may not be working, as in the old, despised AFDC program. Better to use the money (and more) to create public jobs*** for these would-be recipients if private sector jobs have dried up, even if that upsets municipal employee unions (which don't want welfare recipients doing jobs their members might do). Don't revive the old AFDC principle that if you have a child, you can count on the government to take care of you with cash aid even if you don't work.
At the very least the extra aid to the states shouldn't be triggered by caseload expansion. (You could, for example, give states aid in proportion to their local unemployment rate.)
You would think this would be a potential killer issue for the GOPs--"See, the Democrats already want to undo welfare reform"--and Obama, being sensitive to the charge, might quickly back down. It's easiest to whack the camel when only its nose is in the tent, no? (See the original for all his links.)
Peter Edelman, a Georgetown Universitylaw professor who left a senior Clinton administration position in protest of the 1996 law, said the Obama administration and Congress should adopt emergency legislation to suspend work requirements and time limits on cash assistance. "The whole construct [of TANF] is to go out and find jobs," he said. "So it's a Catch-22. It's kind of an impossibility."Once again there is no penalty for past mistakes, just more federal money.
For now, lawmakers are considering whether to add to a welfare contingency fund, likely to run out for the first time this year, in an economic stimulus bill.
For some states, the predicament is immediate. The 1996 law replaced a limitless federal stream of welfare money to states, giving instead a fixed amount -- $16.5 billion a year nationally -- and significant spending freedom. In the years when people were leaving the rolls, less of that money went for cash assistance, and virtually all states shifted much of their grants to other help for poor people: child care, transportation, training programs, child welfare.
Now that welfare rolls are surging again, "the flaw is the states did not save enough money," said Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution senior scholar who worked as a welfare adviser in the Bush White Houseand in Congress. "They have used the TANF block grant for everything under the sun. . . . That leaves them in the lurch."