President Trump's Department of Health and Human Services today rolled back a 2012 Obama directive weakening the work requirements for welfare reform. Although literally no one will notice a difference in how any state's welfare system is run, this change is in keeping with President Trump's promises to ensure that work is linked to welfare.
You may recall a 2012 controversy over President Obama rescinding the work requirements from the 1996 welfare reform bill. The incident became a campaign issue when Mitt Romney released an ad on the matter and spoke out against it on the campaign trail.
"President Obama now wants to strip the established work requirements from welfare," Mitt Romney said at the time. "The success of bipartisan welfare reform, passed under President Clinton, has rested on the obligation of work. The president's action is completely misdirected. Work is a dignified endeavor, and the linkage of work and welfare is essential to prevent welfare from becoming a way of life."
At the time, supporters of President Obama downplayed the announcement, treating the entire issue as if it were some sort of conspiracy theory. It wasn't, although Romney's version of it was not quite accurate, either.
Obama had not actually ended the work requirement -- he had, however, allowed states to request waivers from it if they adopted their own requirements -- potentially far more flexible or even non-existent, some feared.
Obama's July HHS memo invites states to apply for waivers that change the "definitions of work activities" to better meet "the work goals" of welfare reform. In other words, the state of California could (as one state did before 1996, according to the Government Accountability Office) count Weight Watchers attendance as "work," and thus keep more people on the state's welfare rolls without making them work. This is exactly the type of administrative discretion that welfare reform was designed to prevent.
But it turns out that our fears were unfounded -- not because the policy wasn't bad or couldn't have such a result, but because states did not end up answering Obama's invitation to apply for waivers at all. A full year after Obama's action, not a single state had applied. It was only three years later, in 2015, that Ohio became the first and only state to apply, with the goal of seeking to make it easier for welfare recipients to complete a GED program. That application was never answered, and so the Buckeye State reapplied in 2017, after Trump's election.
Today, the Trump HHS department has finally and officially denied that application, noting in its press release that it "inexplicably sat idle under the previous administration." Given another argument we made at the time -- that welfare work rules could not lawfully be waived -- they might have anticipated an undesirable fight in court. Or perhaps state governments just weren't interested for other reasons.