The Obama Administration’s Changes in Welfare Work Requirements

Job Training Class

Job Training Class

The Obama administration’s changes in welfare work requirements have been all over the news.  Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and other Republicans charge that the Obama Administration has gutted the work requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Naturally, the administration denies this.  Various self-appointed “fact-checkers” have also declared the Romney-Ryan ads false.  The purpose of this article is to look at exactly what constitutes “work” under the new rules promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services. Officially, these regulations fall under the Office of Family Assistance.

After spending several hours poring over government regulations, here’s what I found.  The Obama Administration has expanded the meaning of “work” to include:

  • various forms of education (job search and training, education related to employment, or “satisfactory attendance at secondary school” or classes leading to a GED);
  • Work experience including the refurbishing of public housing if sufficient private sector employment is not available;
  • Attendance at substance abuse treatment or mental health treatment, or other rehabilitation activities (limited to four consecutive weeks with a cap of six weeks total).

Let’s face facts.  Going to school is not the meaning of “work” in the original Clinton program.  Some aspects of the Obama rules seem to say that the government will be the employer of last resort (perhaps first resort).  Going to various rehabilitation programs is a good idea, but again does not fall under the usual definition of work.

However, there is one area in which the Obama changes will enhance employment. Nine of the twelve approved activities call for daily monitoring of compliance.  There will be a massive expansion of government payrolls in monitoring.  Whether this is a good idea or not depends on your values.

·      The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program

TANF, like so many government agencies, includes many government programs.  But they all fall generally under its name.  Former President Clinton famously worked with Congressional Republicans on welfare reform.  One element of that program was a requirement that recipients of temporary assistance to work.  Here’s what Wikipedia says [hyperlinks and footnote marks removed.]:

“The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) is a United States federal law considered to be a fundamental shift in both the method and goal of federal cash assistance to the poor. The bill added a workforce development component to welfare legislation, encouraging employment among the poor. The bill was a cornerstone of the Republican Contract with America and was introduced by Rep. E. Clay Shaw, Jr. (R-FL-22) who believed welfare was partly responsible for bringing immigrants to the United States. Bill Clinton signed PRWORA into law on August 22, 1996, fulfilling his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we have come to know it.”

PRWORA instituted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). which became effective July 1, 1997. TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which had been in effect since 1935 and supplanted the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training program (JOBS) of 1988. The law was heralded as a “reassertion of America’s work ethic” by the US Chamber of Commerce, largely in response to the bill’s workfare component. TANF was reauthorized in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.”

The question is what activities are included in “work?”  Clearly actually getting a job that pays is included.  Here’s a summary list of the new requirements from the Obama administration.  (Click here for the “Plan Documentation Guidance Specific to Each Activity” section of the Work Verification Plan Guide.  The previous link is to the document on the HHS website which really does not print very well.  I’ve tried to get it into a pdf file which you can download by clicking here.  I have added emphasis a few places in the following.)

One additional note about requirements for supervision, oversight, monitoring, and the host of other activities that must be performed by some government agency. Note especially the requirement for daily monitoring included in several of the summary descriptions below. This same requirement is placed on every single one of the countable work activities. If nothing else, these changes increase employment among various monitoring groups such as social workers.  Yes, I know social workers perform activities much more important than monitoring.  Make up your own example.  Parole officers, anyone?  Anyone?

According to the document there are 12 allowable work activities.  I have listed nine below. The other three are unsubsidized employment, subsidized private sector employment, and subsidized public sector employment.  While there are explanations in the Countable Work Activities document, they gave me a headache.  I stopped trying to understand them.  If you can figure them out, please let me know.

Countable Work Activities include:

1. Work experience (including work associated with the refurbishing of publicly assisted housing) if sufficient private sector employment is not available …
2. On-the-job training (OJT) …
3. Job search and job readiness assistance means the act of seeking or obtaining employment, preparation to seek or obtain employment, including life skills training, and substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, or rehabilitation activities for those who are otherwise employable. Such treatment or therapy must be determined to be necessary and certified by a qualified medical or mental health professional. Job search and job readiness assistance activities must be supervised by the TANF agency or other responsible party on an ongoing basis no less frequently than daily. …

  • A State may only count an individual’s actual hours of participation in treatment or rehabilitation activities.
  • If a portion of the treatment or rehabilitation activities meets a common-sense definition of another work activity, then the hours associated with the work may count under the appropriate allowable work category.
  • For purposes of the six-week limitation (no more than four consecutive weeks), a week consists of seven consecutive days.
  • If substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, or rehabilitation activities are assigned a qualified medical or mental health professional must certify that such treatment is necessary.

4. Community service programs mean structured programs and embedded activities in which TANF recipients perform work for the direct benefit of the community under the auspices of public or nonprofit organizations. Community service programs must be limited to projects that serve a useful community purpose in fields such as health, social service, environmental protection, education, urban and rural redevelopment, welfare, recreation, public facilities, public safety, and child care. [See 8 below.] Community service programs are designed to improve the employability of recipients not otherwise able to obtain employment, and must be supervised on an ongoing basis no less frequently than daily.

5. Vocational educational training (not to exceed 12 months with respect to any individual) means organized educational programs that are directly related to the preparation of individuals for employment in current or emerging occupations requiring training other than a baccalaureate or advanced degree. … Unsupervised homework time may not count; however structured and monitored study sessions which can be documented may be counted. …

6. Job skills training directly related to employment means training or education for job skills required by an employer to provide an individual with the ability to obtain employment or to advance or adapt to the changing demands of the workplace. …

7. Education directly related to employment, in the case of a recipient who has not received a high school diploma or a certificate of high school equivalency …

  • May include adult basic education and ESL [English as a second language], and where required as a prerequisite for employment education leading to a GED or high school equivalency diploma.
  • Participants should make “good or satisfactory progress” such as performance, attendance, and completion timeframes under the standards of the institution or program.
  • Unsupervised homework time may not be counted.

8. Satisfactory attendance at secondary school or in a course of study leading to a certificate of general equivalence, … [includes bulleted points under 7 above.]
9. Providing child care services to an individual who is participating in a community service program means providing child care to enable another TANF recipient to participate in a community service program.

  • Does not include providing child care to enable a TANF recipient to participate in any of the other 11 allowable work activities.

·      Comparison With the Clinton Program

But the real question is the differences between these rules and the Clinton rules.  Here’s a summary of the Clinton-era law:

Work Activities.

To count toward state work requirements, recipients will be required to participate in unsubsidized or subsidized employment, on-the-job training, work experience, community service, 12 months of vocational training, or provide child care services to individuals who are participating in community service. Up to 6 weeks of job search (no more than 4 consecutive weeks) would count toward the work requirement. However, no more than 20 percent of each state’s caseload may count toward the work requirement solely by participating in vocational training or by being a teen parent in secondary school. Single parents with a child under 6 who cannot find child care cannot be penalized for failure to meet the work requirements. States can exempt from the work requirement single parents with children under age one and disregard these individuals in the calculation of participation rates for up to 12 months.

A five-year time limit.

Families who have received assistance for five cumulative years (or less at state option) will be ineligible for cash aid under the new welfare law. States will be permitted to exempt up to 20 percent of their caseload from the time limit, and states will have the option to provide non-cash assistance and vouchers to families that reach the time limit using Social Services Block Grant or state funds.”

The Obama Administration appears to have added the following items to the original list:

  • Education directly related to employment;
  • Satisfactory attendance at secondary school or in a course of study leading to a certificate of general equivalence;
  • Job skills training directly related to employment;
  • Job search and job readiness assistance means the act of seeking or obtaining employment, preparation to seek or obtain employment, including life skills training, and substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, or rehabilitation activities for those who are otherwise employable;
  • Work experience (including work associated with the refurbishing of publicly assisted housing) if sufficient private sector employment is not available.

·      What’s It All Mean?

“Work” now includes community service, which, in turn, includes environmental protection, education, urban and rural redevelopment, welfare, recreation, public facilities, public safety, and child care.  Wait — community service includes welfare?  Environmental protection? Do recipients get credit for picking up roadside trash?  Or, perhaps, being a volunteer counselor at summer camp?  Mopping floors? I’ve put enough time into this already.  Anyone who wants to look up the detailed Clinton era regulations is welcome to chime in.

Work also incorporates attending high school or GED courses.  I cannot comment on this because I work in education, hence have a conflict of interest.

Substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, and rehabilitation are all valuable activities.  But allow my cynical self to emerge.  Anyone who studies Alcoholics Anonymous will quickly discover that no one in that fine organization has ever been able to predict why some people succeed in beating their addictions and others don’t.  And the idea that anything meaningful can be accomplished in six weeks (no more than four weeks in a row) is laughable to anyone who has ever gone through rehab.  Yes, I have been in rehab programs.  I am still in recovery.

·      Conclusion

A lot of the activities on that list don’t look much like work to me.  And I suspect the requirements for “daily monitoring” are being largely ignored.

I’m sorry, but going into rehab or going to college should not count as work.  Refurbishing public housing is also pretty questionable, as it probably means working for a government agency.  Similarly, many of the job training activities are probably government-sponsored or government-operated.  The Obama Administration has expanded the Clinton work requirements to include government employment.  Is that a good idea?  The answer to that question will be settled November 6.