(Photo credit BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages)
By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
The Obama administration has opened the door to changes in the welfare system's work requirements, a section of the 1996 welfare-to-work law that Republicans consider sacrosanct.
The Department of Health and Human Services notified states Thursday that Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would consider waivers "to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
The welfare law, which went into effect in July 1997 and is celebrating its 15-year anniversary, employed strict work rules and time limits on cash assistance. The law, combined with state experiments of the early 1990s and the hot economy of the late 1990s, helped slash welfare rolls from more than 14 million in 1994 to 4 million today.
Progress has slowed in recent years, and states have complained about work rules that tie them down in paperwork. So the administration seeks to unleash another era of experimentation.
"States led the way on welfare reform in the 1990s -- testing new approaches and learning what worked and what did not," reads the HHS directive from Earl Johnson, director of the Office of Family Assistance. "The secretary is interested in using her authority to approve waiver demonstrations to challenge states to engage in a new round of innovation that seeks to find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment."
Republicans don't see it that way.
"The Obama administration is proposing to let states effectively eliminate (the work requirement)," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. "This is a brazen and unwarranted unraveling of welfare reform. This ends welfare reform as we know it."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, agreed states need better ways to get welfare recipients into "activities that promote self-sufficiency." Utah is one of the states seeking changes.
He said the administration went around Congress by acting alone.
"This power grab by the Obama administration is not a constructive effort to encourage states to think creatively about how to get more people off of welfare and into productive jobs," Hatch said.
The lawmakers' criticism followed an initial complaint from Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation, one of the architects behind the original welfare law, which was a compromise between President Bill Clinton's administration and Republicans in Congress.
"It no longer has any binding force. It might as well have never been written," Rector said.
By midday Friday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was pointing the finger directly at Obama.
"The president's action is completely misdirected," Romney said. "Work is a dignified endeavor, and the linkage of work and welfare is essential to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life."