The Republican presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is knowingly misleading the American people about President Barack Obama “gutting welfare reform” in a series of TV ads that falsely say the president is eliminating the work requirement so that “they just hand you your check.” The lie earned the Romney attack ad a maximum Pinocchio status from all nonpartisan fact-checkers, yet Romney pollster Neil Newhouse acknowledges that whether or not the ad is true is immaterial because “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
So what do the Republican governors of the states that asked for the opportunity to tinker with their state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program think of this indirect attack on them? Well, Govs. Gary Herbert of Utah and Brian Sandoval of Nevada today are backtracking on their recent requests to the Obama administration for some leeway to make the income-assistance program more effective and efficient at combatting poverty through better employment outcomes, but their record of asking for some freedom to experiment at the state level speaks for itself.
In defending his request in August, Gov. Herbert in July said, “Utah’s request for a waiver stems from a desire for increased customization of the program to maximize employment among Utah’s welfare recipients.” This is in line with a strong bipartisan tradition of states as laboratories of democracy to test out new ideas.
For his part, Gov. Sandoval’s spokeswoman said that he never requested a waiver. The spokeswoman says the governor only requested to “explore the possibilities.” This is a distinction without a difference. Nevada’s Health and Human Services director, Michael Willden told the Obama administration in August 2011:
Nevada is very interested in working with your staff to explore program waivers that have the potential to encourage more cooperative relationships among the state agencies engaged in economic stimulus through job creation, employment skill attainment and gainful employment activities. Nevada is also interested in exploring performance measures that endure program accountability and also increase the probability of families becoming self-sufficient by providing meaningful data as to the services or combination of services with best outcomes.
There’s no reason for these governors to be backtracking except the bind that the Romney campaign’s false ads have put them in. The waivers are patently not about “taking the work out of welfare,” but it is clearly part of the bipartisan tradition of letting states be the laboratories for policy reform—as even Gov. Mitt Romney argued back in 2005. As governor of Massachusetts, he asked for “increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work.”
Why would Republican governors ask for this kind of waiver authority? Because they and several Democratic governors recognized some problems with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in their states that get in the way of what progressives and conservatives agree on—work as a strategy to give low-income Americans struggling to rise out of poverty a hand up into the middle class.
There are several big problems with the structure of the work-participation rate as the main metric for gauging a state’s success in moving poor families on their caseload from welfare to work. Under federal rules the federal government provides a flexible block grant to the states, which in turn are required to engage families on their caseload in work- and job-preparation activities for 30 hours a week. At least 50 percent of a state’s work-eligible caseload must meet this threshold if a state wants to receive their full grant from the federal government and avoid penalties. Sounds reasonable.
But a closer look reveals some major problems with the metric as a way to gauge whether or not vulnerable families are actually moving closer to sustainable employment, which is a goal both parties can agree on. Here are just a few good reasons those Republican governors and their Democratic colleagues might have asked for waivers to improve the strategies and metrics to connect more families relying on temporary income assistance to sustainable employment.
Many states were understandably unable to meet their work-participation rate targets during the Great Recession because jobs were scarce
This problem raised the ire of many members of Congress, who cannot for the life of them understand why states would be having trouble placing people in jobs or work-related activities when there are no jobs to be had. Even as our economy slowly recovers, the unemployment rate for people without a high-school diploma—a proxy for low-skilled workers that typically characterize those Americans seeking temporary income assistance—has been three to four times the rate of workers with a college degree.
One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that during the recession, employment losses were most heavily concentrated in mid-wage occupations, but the employment growth in the recovery has been skewed toward lower-wage occupations, say researchers at the National Employment Law Project. In a weak labor market, given the choice between lower and middle skill workers for low-wage jobs, employers may be more likely to hire workers with the higher skill set, thus displacing workers who would hold those types of jobs in a better economy.
“Work” is defined so narrowly in federal law that states often dissuade low-income Americans in need of work from activities that could help in the long term
At a time when jobs are scarce, it would make sense for states to help out-of-work, low-income Americans access education and training to increase their employability or to address long-term barriers to work such as substance abuse or mental health issues. Unfortunately, states are often dissuaded from helping these types of workers in these ways because there are limits in how states can count these activities toward their work-participation rates.
This causes states to seek to reduce their temporary income assistance caseload to meet their work-participation rate requirements—even it means not helping someone become truly gainfully employed. It also discourages many workers on income assistance from seeking education and training that could help them access better jobs in the long-term.
The work-participation rate doesn’t address the multiple barriers to work faced by the breadwinners of many poor families
Many breadwinners of poor families are not able to work for 30 hours a week or more for very practical reasons. A 2010 survey of poor adults with children (not all of whom are recipients of temporary income assistance) indicated that of those with employment challenges, 35 percent had home or family reasons including a sick child or parent or disruptions in child care that prevent them from working temporarily or sometime permanently, as my colleague Joy Moses notes in Chapter Three of our report “Restoring Shared Prosperity: Strategies to Cut Poverty and Expand Economic Growth.”
Stringent work-participation rates under federal law encourage states to “cream” the easiest-to-employ individuals rather than deal with the barriers facing the most vulnerable workers by taking steps such as expanding child-care assistance or helping a family access the needed support to deal with a personal crisis. The goal of moving people from welfare to work is critical, but work-participation rates alone are sometimes a poor metric for tracking actual progress on this front.
The bottom line for Republican and Democratic governors seeking waivers
The current federal incentive structure for helping low-income breadwinners turn from temporary income assistance to sustainable employment often encourages states to ignore the complicated realities of some of these workers and their families; discounts valuable efforts to help these breadwinners find jobs through education, training, or job search activities; and forces the states to stick to a rigid work-participation rate even amid deep recessions. In requesting waivers from the work-participation rates, Republican and Democratic governors alike—including the former governor of Massachusetts who is now running deeply misleading attack ads on just this issue—have simply asked for room to experiment without jettisoning the centrality of work in the welfare reform law.
In granting the waiver authority, President Obama was responding to bipartisan consensus that we need to think about measuring progress in ways that are more reflective of poor families’ employment outcomes when they are forced to turn to temporary income assistance. The Obama administration’s policy is to strengthen work requirements, giving states more space to innovate with approaches that move a higher share of workers in need of temporary income assistance into sustainable employment. That sounds like the opposite of “gutting welfare reform,” doesn’t it?
Melissa Boteach is Director of the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.