Commentary Magazine


Topic: Department of Health and Human Services

Obama’s Stealth Welfare Reform Rollback

It happened almost without anyone noticing it but last month, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a new policy directive effectively gutting the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.  With a single stroke, the Obama administration ended the work requirements that began the push to end the dependency of the poor on government assistance and to impose accountability on the system. The popular and successful law was something both President Clinton and the Republican Congress took credit for, but when Obama overturned it last month, it generated little comment except from conservative watchdogs like the Heritage Foundation. But today, the Mitt Romney campaign has unveiled a new ad that will put the issue on the front political burner.

The Democrats will probably seek to label the issue as a racist provocation while also claiming the poor economic situation and high unemployment makes it impossible to impose work requirements on the needy. But the issue here is neither race nor sympathy for the poor. If the Obama re-write of the law is allowed to stand, the president will have gotten away with reversing a fundamental reform of the welfare state. Without the work requirements created by the 1996 legislation, we will be dooming a new generation of Americans to the sort of thralldom to the government that most Americans believed we had finally ended during the Clinton administration.

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It happened almost without anyone noticing it but last month, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a new policy directive effectively gutting the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.  With a single stroke, the Obama administration ended the work requirements that began the push to end the dependency of the poor on government assistance and to impose accountability on the system. The popular and successful law was something both President Clinton and the Republican Congress took credit for, but when Obama overturned it last month, it generated little comment except from conservative watchdogs like the Heritage Foundation. But today, the Mitt Romney campaign has unveiled a new ad that will put the issue on the front political burner.

The Democrats will probably seek to label the issue as a racist provocation while also claiming the poor economic situation and high unemployment makes it impossible to impose work requirements on the needy. But the issue here is neither race nor sympathy for the poor. If the Obama re-write of the law is allowed to stand, the president will have gotten away with reversing a fundamental reform of the welfare state. Without the work requirements created by the 1996 legislation, we will be dooming a new generation of Americans to the sort of thralldom to the government that most Americans believed we had finally ended during the Clinton administration.

It should be expected that liberals will go all out to label the attack on Obama’s policy as racist. Like the attempt to depict the discussion about the lamentable rise in food stamp usage under this administration, the Democratic strategy will be to tar anyone who has the chutzpah to note the president’s effort to expand the welfare state as somehow prejudiced. But like the arguments claiming that point was a racist “dog whistle,” the defense of Obama’s gutting of welfare reform isn’t likely to persuade most voters.

Far from the critique of this rollback of reforms being racist, it is the liberal effort to take us back to the pre-Clinton era when welfare was a liberal sacred cow that is harmful to minorities. In 1965 then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his famous report on the way African-American families had been reduced to a state of permanent dependency by the welfare state. The Moynihan Report, which pointed out that well-intentioned government policies were recreating the evils of slavery, set off an important debate about the unintended consequences of liberal ideology. Moynihan discussed the issue in an article in COMMENTARY in February 1967. It would take decades for Americans to finally demand change, but common sense eventually prevailed in 1996 when a Republican Congress passed and a Democratic president signed the Welfare Reform Act.

While this issue will be seen as merely an attempt by the GOP to score points in the presidential race, it is actually far more serious than that. The bad economy makes it all the more important that the cycle of dependency not be restarted or expanded. With the press distracted by the presidential campaign and Congress immersed in partisan bickering about the deficit, President Obama was able to slip through an HHS directive that has destroyed the work that Moynihan began. The consequences of this stealthy move, if it is not reversed by either congressional action or a presidential reversal, are incalculable. While most of the focus on Obama’s liberal agenda has been on his expansion of federal power via his signature health care legislation, his decision to undo welfare reform may be just as significant an indication of his intent to restore failed liberal policies of the past. Romney is right to point this out. The question is, does the public understand just how important this issue will be in shaping our nation’s future?

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Obama’s $8 Billion Cynical Ploy

When Barack Obama ran for the presidency, it was based in large part on his commitment to cleanse the temple. Washington was “more corrupt and more wasteful than it was before.” Americans who had lost trust in government “want to believe again.” Telling the American people what politicians think they want to hear instead of what they need to hear “just won’t do.” Obama would put an end to phony accounting and “take on the lobbyists.” The cynics, the lobbyists and the special interests had “turned our government into a game only they can afford to play.” The result is that the people “have looked away in disillusionment and frustration.”

“The time for that kind of politics is over,” Obama told us when he announced his bid for the presidency. “It is through. It’s time to turn the page right here and right now.” The reason he was running for president, Obama declared in his November 10, 2007 Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, was to “offer change we can believe in.”

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When Barack Obama ran for the presidency, it was based in large part on his commitment to cleanse the temple. Washington was “more corrupt and more wasteful than it was before.” Americans who had lost trust in government “want to believe again.” Telling the American people what politicians think they want to hear instead of what they need to hear “just won’t do.” Obama would put an end to phony accounting and “take on the lobbyists.” The cynics, the lobbyists and the special interests had “turned our government into a game only they can afford to play.” The result is that the people “have looked away in disillusionment and frustration.”

“The time for that kind of politics is over,” Obama told us when he announced his bid for the presidency. “It is through. It’s time to turn the page right here and right now.” The reason he was running for president, Obama declared in his November 10, 2007 Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, was to “offer change we can believe in.”

Imagine how chagrined those who took Obama’s words at face value must feel now that it’s been revealed that the president has set up what is, for all intent and purposes, an $8 billion slush fund at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Here’s how it works. Thanks to the president’s health care plan, in October, seniors were going to learn of cuts in the popular Medicare Advantage program. Fearful of the election ramifications, especially in states like Florida and Arizona, the president came up with a plan. Writing in the New York Post, Benjamin Sasse and Charles Hurt explain that

…the administration’s devised a way to postpone the pain one more year, getting Obama past his last election; it plans to spend $8 billion to temporarily restore Medicare Advantage funds so that seniors in key markets don’t lose their trusted insurance program in the middle of Obama’s re-election bid. The money is to come from funds that Health and Human Services is allowed to use for “demonstration projects.” But to make it legal, HHS has to pretend that it’s doing an “experiment” to study the effect of this money on the insurance market. That is, to “study” what happens when the government doesn’t change anything but merely continues a program that’s been going on for years.

But along came a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report released yesterday which recommends that HHS cancel the project. The GAO said the project “dwarfs all other Medicare demonstrations” in its impact on the budget and criticized its poor design. “The design of the demonstration precludes a credible evaluation of its effectiveness in achieving CMS’s [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] stated research goal,” according to the report. As the Wall Street Journal puts it in this editorial, “there’s no control group to test which approaches work better. It’s a demonstration project without the ability to demonstrate.” Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, and Representative Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, released a statement in which they said they were concerned that the government might be “using taxpayer dollars for political purposes, to mask the impact on beneficiaries of cuts in the Medicare Advantage program.”

Sasse and Hurt believe that what the Obama administration is doing “certainly presses the boundaries of legality and very well may breach them.”

“If he’s not stopped,” they write, “Obama will spend $8 billion in taxpayer funds for a scheme to mask the debilitating effects on seniors of his signature piece of legislation just long enough to get himself re-elected.”

This is probably not what people thought Obama had in mind when he promised to do away with phony accounting and tell people what they needed to hear rather than what they wanted to hear. It increases cynicism among the citizenry. It might even cause people to look away in disillusionment and frustration.

We’ve now reached the stage where Barack Obama’s words are the greatest indictment of his stewardship. All it takes is to remind people of Obama’s rhetoric in 2008 to show that at the core of his campaign was a massive deceit. In response, a majority of the public may well say that “the time for that kind of politics is over. It is through. It’s time to turn the page right here and right now.” They might even consider citing the source for those high-minded words.

 

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