by Carl Tubbesing
Sometime today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will release the regulations it has developed to implement the newly-revised Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law. In the lead-up to the publication of the regulations, HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt and Wade Horn, head of the Children and Families agency in HHS, have made it clear that the regulations, like the new law passed last December, will put more control over the nation’s welfare programs in the unsteady hands of the federal government and drastically restrict the flexibility that state legislatures attained when TANF first became law in 1996.
In a transparent attempt to put legislators and governors on the defensive, Secretary Leavitt, usually known as a staunch advocate for state authority, and Mr. Horn have hammered on a message point worthy of a well-run presidential campaign. Some states, they are saying in speeches and interviews, are allowing bed rest as a work activity.
Can you say "red herring?" This campaign to justify stricter definitions and tougher rules trivializes one of the most successful joint state-federal programs in the country’s history. Borrowing from several successful state initiatives, the 1996 TANF law fundamentally changed the philosophy of welfare in the United States-by focusing on moving welfare recipients into jobs. It also altered the philosophy of how the federal and state governments relate to one another-by giving state legislators the flexibility to design work and other welfare programs in ways that they felt best met the unique needs of each state.
Oh, and, by the way, TANF has worked. States have trained TANF participants to enter the workforce. They’ve provided child care so mothers and fathers can be trained and get jobs. They’ve put people to work.
It may sound flip to say, "So what if a legislature decides that bed rest is a work activity?" but it really isn’t. That was part of the bargain when state legislators and governors helped craft the 1996 TANF law. If a legislature decides that counting bed rest for an expecting mother makes the experience more like private sector practices, then it should be able to do that.
The same flexibility that lets legislatures count bed rest also has reduced caseloads by 57 percent and moved countless former recipients into meaningful jobs. If a voter feels the legislature has somehow gone too far, her legislator is as close as the nearest Starbucks or Albertson’s--not 1500 miles away in the Dirksen Senate office building or the labyrinthian HHS headquarters on Independence Avenue.
Imposing stricter rules from that HHS labyrinth reverses ten years of progress and success and returns the country to the not-so-good-old AFDC days of federal micromanagement and policy-making handcuffs--a time when Republicans and Democrats alike were united in their assessment that the welfare system was horribly broken.