Welfare reform’s architect: You call that a gutting?

August 7, 2012

Ron Haskins / The Brookings Institution.

This morning Lanhee Chen, the Romney campaign's policy director, sent out a blast to reporters decrying Obama's "attempt to unwind welfare reform." The attack is the same one Republicans have been lobbing at the administration for the past month or so. The waivers Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has initiated to allow states more flexibility in implementing their welfare programs, critics allege, amount to a gutting of the 1996 welfare reform law, and will undermine that law's cardinal tenet that welfare should be temporary and part of a transition to work.

The administration has responded by noting that a slew of Republican governors, among them then-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, requested very similar waivers in 2005. But Chen's note, and a new ad making the same criticism, suggests the Romney camp wants to make this a bigger issue going forward.

Ron Haskins, one of the reform's main authors who Chen cites in his e-mail, agrees with the Romney camp on two counts. One, he insists, the reform has been overwhelmingly successful. Never-married mothers, the likeliest demographic group to be on welfare, are still working at rates higher than prior to the reforms, despite the current economic downturn. "There’s been some real impact, call it cultural change if you want to," Haskins says. "There’s a lot more work going on." He also believes the Obama administration should have pursued its waivers with the cooperation of Republicans. "It might not be illegal," he concedes. "But [HHS] didn’t even consult with the Republicans. They knew the spirit of the law, and they violated that."

But Haskins enthusiastically supports the actual policy of the waivers. Waivers are what made welfare reform possible in the first place, he argues, by letting states experiment with new practices and they can be useful going forward. For instance, he thinks they might offer a way around limitations that prevent welfare checks from going to employers to subsidize the hiring of welfare recipients, rather than to the recipients directly. Such combined welfare-work programs, Haskins believes, hold a lot of promise. "What this really boils down to is an issue of trust," he concludes. "Do you trust that the secretary of HHS is only going to grant waivers that really are promising?…Maybe I’m naïve, but I just don’t come to the conclusion that the Democrats would really use the waiver to undermine welfare reform."

One reasons he's doubtful of the Republican attacks is the experience of the stimulus package, which included new welfare funding for states. Republicans and conservatives attacked the idea as undermining the principle that states should be funded based on their success in keeping people off welfare. But a study by LaDonna Pavetti, Liz Schott and Elizabeth Lower-Basch put out by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found (pdf) that the funding created 260,000 jobs and was actually used to promote welfare-to-work initiatives, not undermine them. No one has successfully refuted that study, Haskins says. What's more, the results of the program call into question the idea that Democrats are itching to undermine welfare reform. If the Obama administration wanted to undermine the reform's work requirements, Haskins asks, "why did they allow the states to use the $5 billion to subsidize work?"

In sum, Haskins says, "The Republican alarm on welfare reform might be a little exaggerated." Coming from one of the architects of the reform, that should cast some doubt on Romney's attacks.

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Ezra Klein · August 7, 2012