Given the divergent attitudes about public welfare administration in the United States, one would think that any move to initiate or alter current law would be a highly transparent and bipartisan process.
Instead, the recent unilateral move by the Obama administration to change the work requirements in the government's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) component of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act has created a great deal of confusion.
As the issue becomes politicized in this election season, it's easy to see why so many Republicans are crying foul, given the Obama administration's general lack of bipartisan engagement and a growing perception that the administration is willfully propagating a welfare state. Nonetheless, a deeper examination reveals a very different reality.
The 1996 reform, initiated by the Clinton administration in conjunction with a Republican Congress, shifted federal management of the TANF to the states. It has been very successful legislation, but the act must continue to evolve.
The irony of the recent Obama action, promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is that the state of Utah is on the leading edge of a group of states requesting more flexibility to the current TANF work requirement.
Utah, in correspondence with HHS for several months, has let it be known that a burdensome bureaucratic process has bogged the system down. Gov. Gary Herbert's office has requested more flexibility via waivers to the work requirement so that the state can itself work more efficiently in putting more recipients to work faster.
A state-funded pilot program may, if successful, provide a new model for other states to manage their TANF programs more efficiently, ultimately deflecting saved funds to other, more needy assistance candidates.
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch has been in correspondence with the HHS recently, leading the charge against the Obama action. In fact, resistance has led to an inquiry by the General Accountability Office, ultimately declaring the HHS promulgation illegal.
The House of Representatives recently voted against the HHS initiative, and Hatch is pressuring a Senate vote in the coming days.
The irony extends to Herbert and Hatch. One would think that these two Utah Republicans, working on behalf of Utah citizens, would be working together, or at least share a collective goal for Utah.
It leaves one wondering if the two even talk. It's understood that at the federal level Hatch has broader concerns, in light of ideological remarks by Obama concerning the federal government's role and reach concerning public assistance. Many of Obama's controversial comments were made during his days as a senator, and to this day, it's difficult to know exactly where he stands on the extent of the federal government's role.
Adding to the confusion is the Mitt Romney campaign blasting Obama for dropping the work requirement. Romney himself petitioned for similar flexibility to the work requirement during his days as governor of Massachusetts, presumably in an effort to streamline the process.
Obama maintains that the initiative is not an effort to hand checks to those unwilling to fulfill work requirements; but again, a lack of bipartisanship by the administration has created a lot of paranoia for people of every economic class, and the Romney campaign seems to have plugged into this fear.
It's time for more transparency, more bipartisanship, more clarity. It's time for less fear and more communication.
Dropping the work requirement could ultimately help needy families rise out of poverty faster. More control to the states should save a lot of bureaucratic expenditure, and give our economy a much-needed lift.
Jim Pike lives in Sandy. He operates a small landscaping business and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Utah College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.