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?