Obama's welfare-to-work firestorm

Mitt Romney is accusing President Obama of turning the clock back on welfare reform.

The Republican challenger Tuesday launched a new ad charging Obama with gutting the landmark 1996 welfare reform law that requires recipients to work to receive benefits. It's another step in Romney's strategy to paint Obama as the entitlement president.

"You wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job," says the ad, which begins with another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signing the legislation into law. "They just send you your welfare check."

The ad is the most public attack on a change the administration made last month to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is what welfare became after 1996.

The controversy is centered on the work requirements at the heart of TANF's cash assistance program.

The law currently lists the work activities that meet the requirement, including participating in subsidized or unsubsidized employment, undergoing on-the-job-training, attending a high school or GED program and searching for a job. It also requires the states to track the hours recipients spend in these activities -- 50% of recipients are required to participate, though states can have that target reduced if they lower their caseloads.

But last month, the Department of Health and Human Services added an option that allows for more flexibility for states that want to test alternate ways of putting families on the path back to employment.

Recipients would still have to get jobs or prepare for work, but states can now apply for waivers of the original requirements.

The purpose is to better help people get back to gainful employment and off government assistance. The administration said it met with state officials, who said that more flexibility could put more recipients to work.

"We also heard concerns that some TANF rules stifle innovation and focus attention on paperwork rather than helping parents find jobs," wrote George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the department's Administration for Children and Families.

The waivers might allow other activities -- such as spending more time in vocational training or enrolling in substance abuse program -- to count toward the work requirement, according to Elizabeth Lower-Basch, senior policy analyst at CLASP, a low-income advocacy group. Also, it could allow states to track success based on the number of recipients landing work, rather than by hours alone.

States must guarantee that the proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Republican lawmakers and conservative policy advocates, however, immediately jumped on the change, saying that it eliminates the work requirement.

"This is a brazen and unwarranted unraveling of welfare reform," said House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, who co-authored the 1996 law.

The TANF work requirements are not onerous, said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who helped author them. After the law was passed, welfare caseloads dropped by half and employment of single mothers rose.

Rector argues that the law already has a lot of flexibility built into it. Instead, the administration "took the law and threw it in the trash can."