Sebelius defends welfare changes

The Obama administration is hitting back at GOP criticism that new administration waivers will loosen work requirements for people on welfare.

In a letter to two prominent lawmakers, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the waivers states can apply for will not change requirements in the 1996 welfare reform law that mandate recipients find work in order to qualify for help. 

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Republicans have argued the new waivers could undercut the work requirements, but Sebelius said they merely allow states to develop new approaches for meeting the work requirements. 

"The department is providing a very limited waiver opportunity for states that develop a plan to measurably increase the number of beneficiaries who find and hold down a job," Sebelius wrote to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.). 

"Our goal is to accelerate job placement by moving more Americans from welfare to work," Sebelius wrote. "No policy which undercuts that goal or waters down work requirements will be considered or approved." 

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Republicans quickly jumped on the administration after it announced July 12 that states can apply for certain waivers under the landmark 1996 law, which established the work requirement.

Members of the GOP, including the party's presumptive presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, said the policy "guts" the work requirement and will lead to more dependence on the government.

But Sebelius's letter says no state will receive a waiver if it proposes to weaken or redefine the work requirement.

She also addressed criticism from Hatch that the new policy will allow states to count activities such as personal care, massage, journaling and bed rest as work.

According to Hatch's office, federal investigators reported in 2005 that several states listed those pursuits as part of their definition of "federal work activity" under the welfare law.

Sebelius said that she would approve no waiver that redefines the work requirement to include any of the activities listed in the 2005 report.

"We will continue to hold states accountable for moving people from welfare to work," she wrote.

Under the new policy, federal waivers would allow states to test new approaches to ensuring welfare recipients find jobs. In exchange, states would have to prove that their new methods are effective, or lose the waivers.

Past documents reveal that President George W. Bush and his administration advocated for a similar policy, and that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney petitioned Congress for more flexibility under TANF.

On Wednesday, Hatch and Camp repeated criticism of President Obama over welfare and introduced bills to block the new policy.

“I’m introducing this bill because the Obama administration grossly undermined the constitutional authority of the legislative branch to effect changes to settled law,” Hatch said on the Senate floor.