Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it”; now the Obama administration wants to start it up again. Health and Human Services head Kathleen Sibelius issued a memorandum in July that (perhaps illegally) weakens the work requirements of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, a key element of the 1996 welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton. This alarming turnabout will likely cause even greater growth in welfare rolls and spending – and could cost President Obama his job.
Welfare reform has always been controversial. When Clinton signed the bill, three officials in his White House resigned, so incensed were they at the bill’s work requirements. Liberals view the measure as harsh. Republicans disagree, and point to a consequent 50 percent drop in welfare caseloads as evidence that we had created a culture of dependency – one that was overturned by common sense legislation. The culture of dependency is what Obama would like to revive.
It is a terrible misstep. With the country in a continuing economic and emotional slump, Americans fear for the future and are especially alarmed at the soaring federal debt and narrowing avenues for growth. They cannot figure out how to balance the budget, protect the computer systems that run power plants, simplify the tax code or detangle the red tape strangling businesses. We can’t seem to fix anything – not our broken schools, nor our uber-expensive healthcare system –not even our potholes. The last thing we need to rebuild is our welfare society. Americans won’t stand for it.
Instead of working with Congress to resolve the country’s problems, President Obama has pitted us one against the other. Rather than inspiring the nation in a dark moment of our history, Obama has chosen to turn the lights lower. He has stoked the fires of envy in speech after speech, rallying the poor to begrudge the rich. Happily, Americans are not an envious people. They believe in a meritocracy: if you work hard, you deserve the spoils of success. They also think it fair that their able-bodied neighbors should have to work for a living.
In a recent Rasmussen poll, 83 percent of Americans think people on welfare should be required to work. A 2009 poll reflected bipartisan approval of a work requirement for welfare recipients, with 96 percent of Democrats and 97 percent of Republicans favoring the measure.
A 2008 interview with evangelical minister Rick Warren, even President Obama agreed, saying, “One of the things I am absolutely convinced of is that we have to have work as a centerpiece of any social policy.” Obama reflected that he had changed his views on welfare reform, saying that “ultimately people who work are going to get more income, but the intrinsic dignity of work, the sense of purpose….because you’re making a contribution, no matter how small to the well-being of the country as a whole. I think that is something that Democrats generally, I think, have made a significant shift on.”
Not all Democrats, apparently, and no longer President Obama. This volte-face seems especially poorly timed. With a growing number of Americans not paying taxes and instead receiving government assistance, many recognize that we’re close to a structural tipping point. By offering up ever-greater handouts, politicians can buy votes while undermining the constitutional social contract.
Some think that this is exactly what Mr. Obama is doing. During his time in office, according to the Heritage Foundation, federal means-tested welfare spending has increased by one third, totaling $927 billion last year. (This, of course, does not include Social Security and Medicare.) That amounts to $9,040 per year for every low-income American—enough, as Robert Rector at Heritage points out – to lift every such household to twice the federal poverty level. While some of this jump reflects the impact of the recession, Mr. Rector notes that Mr. Obama’s budget projects further increases in welfare spending – to 6 percent of GDP from 4.5 percent, reaching $1.56 trillion in 2022. That’s not inflation, that’s ideology.
An ideology apparently not shared by President Clinton. It is ironic that Obama wants to undermine one of his predecessor’s signature achievements, even as he is asking him to star in his reelection campaign and give a keynote speech at the Democratic convention. Obama would also like to tap into Clinton’s 66 percent approval ratings. Some might think him ungrateful to borrow from that popularity while simultaneously overthrowing his legacy.
Clinton will likely struggle to sell the nation on four more years of Obama. Unlike the incumbent, Clinton understands how essential successful businesses are to our economy-- he famously strayed from the Obama reservation by defending Mitt Romney’s career in private equity. The ultimate pragmatist, Clinton responded to the thumping he received in his first midterm elections by moving towards the center. He worked with a riled-up GOP House and managed to reboot his presidency. Obama was delivered a similar wake-up call in his midterm elections – but it fell on deaf ears. His liberal cast is set in stone.
The welfare reform measure passed by President Clinton was the second time the U.S. threw a roadblock in front of runaway welfare spending. In 1980, economist Gary Shilling reported that a record 55 percent of the country was receiving government handouts, one of many concerns that drove the nation to elect Ronald Reagan. On welfare, Reagan shared the view of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who declared in his 1935 State of the Union address that welfare was ''a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.'' Reagan answered, ''We must now escape the spider's web of dependency.'' President Obama should fall in step.