In 1996, a Republican Congress enacted, and PresidentBill Clinton signed, a welfare-reform law that imposed a“work requirement” on all states. Every state must make 40 percent of welfare recipients either work, look for work, get on-the-job training, go to high school, get vocational education or participate in job-readiness training. These activities must take up at least 30 hours a week.
The bipartisan reform is generally considered a success. Welfare caseloads dropped, employment rates for single mothers increased and child poverty declined. Robert Rector, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who played a big role in writing and enacting the law, notes that while the numbers have gone up and down with the economy, all of them have stayed better than they were before the reform.
The law has nonetheless always had detractors in the left wing of the Democratic Party, who considered it draconian. A few critics of the law resigned over Clinton’s signing of it. Republicans suspect that the critics are now subverting it.
On July 12, HHS claimed that Kathleen Sebelius, the department’s head, can let states out of the work requirement. It says she will use that authority not to undermine the goal of moving people from welfare to work, but to give states flexibility in meeting it. She will issue waivers only if those states present a solid plan to improve their performance.