The Department of Health & Human Services and Republican congressional leaders are clashing again, this time over regulations for administering federal welfare programs, which were reformed in 1996 to implement work requirements for recipients. The ’96 reform was a needed change to a program that was correctly criticized for fostering dependency –turning the social safety net into a hammock if you will. Therefore the reform of the reform is drawing concern from GOP leaders. But I think this concern is misplaced.
1996’s reform legislation was put together by a bipartisan coalition of a new Republican Congress, that had taken power for the first time in forty years and Bill Clinton, who returned to his Arkansas roots as a reasonable centrist on such issues after pursuing a liberal agenda cost his party the House & Senate in 1994. Over the previous three decades, no work was required in exchange for welfare benefits. This was one part of a radical shift within the Democratic Party.
Whereas Franklin D. Roosevelt had considered welfare to be a temporary solution in the Depression and a destroyer of the human spirit, the radical Left sought to legitimize getting something for nothing. The backlash from working & middle-class constituents did more than affect public attitudes on one policy issue—it was perhaps one of the biggest factors in creating a whole new voter bloc. The “Reagan Democrats”, believed what their namesake believed—that while society owed the downtrodden a helping hand, no one owed anybody a handout. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan pushed through work requirements to the state program and his criticisms of federal policy were a key part of his ascendancy to the White House.
While Reagan could not make changes during his own time in Washington—he faced a hostile House of Representatives all eight years of his presidency and his political capital was better spent lowering marginal tax rates, which were at 70 percent, and confronting the Soviet Union, his leadership brought a slew of young officeholders into politics, creating a farm team that eventually reached the big leagues in 1994 when the GOP took the House & Senate. Then, as mentioned, they and Clinton came together on a deal to make a work a requirement for receiving federal welfare benefits.
The Obama Administration has now issued a directive saying that education and vocational training can substitute for work, if the state so chooses. The desire is to give states more flexibility in implementing the reform. I would argue that this does *not* undermine the spirit of the law and may in fact strengthen it. Requiring someone to go to school can in no way be compared to giving something for nothing. And while working any kind of menial job is better than doing nothing (and before I have to listen to any suburban liberals get all self-righteous about this, I’ve done my share of menial jobs), preparing oneself for a longer-term future ranks even higher on the ladder.
I suspect the real reason for opposition to the HHS rules are the context that this comes in. The Administration is not a fan of flexibility for states in other areas of policy, notably in health care. The president himself comes out of a political movement on the Far Left which opposed the 1996 reforms. Therefore it’s not being unreasonable to think these changes are a first step on a path toward ultimately undoing the law. But the Administration does not have the power to do that without congressional support.
The new welfare reform regulations from HHS are within the spirit of the original law and give the states necessary flexibility. Now it’s time to see that as a precedent for changing another overbearing HHS federal mandate—you know the one that says Catholic businesses have no right what to include in their health plans.
Dan Flaherty is the author of Fulcrum, an Irish Catholic novel set in postwar Boston with a traditional Democratic mayoral campaign at its heart, and he is the editor-in-chief of TheSportsNotebook.com.