Obama has not acted or proposed to change work requirements for welfare. Obama has consented - at the request of numerous governors and state human services officials - to grant greater control of administration of welfare benefits to the states. He has consented, as they have repeatedly requested, to allow individual states to try approaches that may include changing the work requirements, but only if they can quickly prove that the approach succeeds in getting people off welfare rolls more quickly.
Obama's own position is that work requirements should stay as they are now. This is not a new position - he has made his belief in the reformed approach to welfare known many times. But he has also conceded that the states can sometimes be the best place to try out inventive new ideas.
In February of 2011, the President tasked the federal Department of Health and Human Services to find ways to support innovation in the states, without sacrificing the goals met by the work requirements. He directed DHHS staff to meet with the governors interested in experimenting with their state programs, and find out more about what they wanted to do.
The department came up with a system in which states could have more control over how they administrated welfare, providing they test their ideas first with pilot programs. The plan involves giving states that apply for them conditional waivers to get around specific work requirements, as long as they can show measurable, incremental results. In other words, a state can apply for a waiver to the work requirement in order to test a new approach. But before they can implement it statewide, they have to show through rigorous evaluation that the new approach will result in helping people to move to self-sufficiency.
It is incorrect and untrue to say that President Obama has proposed or moved to eliminate the work requirement from welfare. There is no proposed or completed plan coming from the White House to remove the work requirement. Many states have no plans to change their welfare system. Obama's decision granted requests by some states for waivers to the work requirement, giving them more freedom to break new ground.
On 7/12/12, President Obama signed off on an official memo from DHHS to the states, detailing a plan to respond to their requests. It grants more leeway to states to try "experimental, pilot, or demonstration projects," but stresses that the goal remains helping people get back on their feet and gainfully employed, rather than dependent on welfare.
To ensure that changes don't result in greater dependency, the memo states: "HHS will hold states accountable by requiring both a federally-approved evaluation and interim performance targets that ensure an immediate focus on measurable outcomes."
The memo reflects Obama's often-stated belief that the welfare-to-work approach is critical, and while states will be allowed a chance to think creatively, they "must develop evaluation plans that are sufficient to evaluate the effect of the proposed approach". If a state's new pilot program is not showing an ability to meet targets quickly, that state may lose its freedom to experiment. The President was clear that there would be a limited window of time during which he would waive the work requirements standard. The memo articulates the expectation that "any demonstration projects approved under this authority will be focused on improving employment outcomes."
In a letter addressed to state officials accompanying the memo, Acting HHS Asst. Secretary George Sheldon cautioned that Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was "only interested in approving waivers (to the work requirement) if the state can explain in a compelling fashion why the proposed approach may be a more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs that offer opportunities for earnings and advancement that will allow participants to avoid dependence on government benefits."
Sheldon added, "It is critical that we work together to develop effective employment strategies that prepare workers for the jobs of the 21st century."
On Tuesday, the Romney campaign released an ad saying the President had just "quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements." Under Obama's new plan, the ad tells you, "you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
Here is a copy of the memo sent from the Department of Health and Human Services to state HHS officials.