In August, in response to an ad from the campaign of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney claiming that the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services had just weakened the work requirements of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (also known as TANF, or "traditional welfare"), Molly Moorhead at the so-called fact check site PolitiFact gave the ad a "Pants on Fire" rating, the one supposedly reserved for the most scurrilous lies propagated by politicians and others. Russell Sykes, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute has just doused PolitiFact's imaginary flames -- but don't hold your breath waiting for PoltiFact to recognize it.
Specifically, Moorhead objected to the Romney ad as follows (bolds are mine throughout this post):
(Romney's ad is) a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.
The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: "They just send you your welfare check." The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is "designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."
The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!
Sykes's analysis, which serves as effective rebuttal to Moorhead's evaluation, reads in part:
... The Obama administration said that the change was a response to requests by governors for more flexibility in administering the program and that it was not intended to "waive or dismantle" the work requirement. But in some key respects, the HHS waiver is inconsistent with this statement. The language itself signals the agency's willingness to water down the program's current focus on work participation rates as the primary test of each state's compliance with the goals of welfare reform.
... Despite the administration's claims that waivers will not be allowed that dilute the emphasis on work, some of the specific language can be read otherwise.
... In at least two sections, the HHS memo uses specific language indicating that the agency will approve other activities "in lieu of work participation rates" ...
... Another permissible waiver would be for "projects that test systematically extending the period in which vocational educational training or job search/readiness programs count toward participation rates, either generally or for particular subgroups, such as an extended training period for those pursuing a credential."
... States have tried these approaches before, to little avail. That is the main reason that current TANF law limits vocational education to 30 percent of the countable caseload. Able-bodied adults in pre-TANF times could languish in training and education programs for long periods without actively looking for or finding employment. (In other words, "they just send you your welfare check" as long you show up for "training and education." -- Ed.)
... The HHS memo states that the agency "will not approve a waiver for an initiative that appears substantially likely to reduce access to assistance or employment for needy families"—an indication that the federal government will not support further efforts to help people without adding them to the rolls. (In other words, they want you officially on the full-boat welfare program before you can get any help, so they can start "just sending checks." -- Ed.)
Under current law, under an approach known as "diversion," states can utilize TANF funds as one-time payments to meet the short-term needs of poor people. These needs include child care, transportation, or help paying a utility bill.
... If the new HHS policy survives a potential legal challenge and ongoing congressional challenges, it is hard to see how it would not undermine the clear work participation rates in TANF.
When the latest TANF extension expires in late March of 2013, Congress should fully reauthorize the program, making necessary changes and maintaining the measurable focus on work. Returning to the old days of welfare—when virtually any assignment counted as work—is a step in the wrong direction and a truly bad idea.
Sykes shows, in other words, that HHS is taking an incremental approach to ending the work requirements in TANF. One would have to be blind in one eye and not be able to see out of the other to believe that the Obama administration really "is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful." They're not. If they were, they would have clearly said so instead of issuing a five-page muddle of bureaucratese. Under their program, there are clearly instances where they will, as Mitt Romney claimed, "just send checks" to certain recipients even though they are making little if any meaningful progress towards achieving gainful employment.
PolitiFact's Molly Moorhead, who made the evaluation, is the person whose pants are on fire. She owes Mitt Romney and his campaign a retraction we'll surely never see.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.