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Innovation stifled by campaign trail ignorance?

It started innocently enough, with a perfectly reasonable 2011 letter from Nevada to the federal government.

Nevada Director of Health and Human Services Michael Willden told one of his federal counterparts that “Nevada is very interested in working with your staff to explore program waivers that have the potential to encourage more cooperative relationships among the state agencies engaged in economic stimulus through job creation, employment skill attainment and gainful employment activities.”

Just as reasonably, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wrote to the states on July 12, offering those very waivers.

“HHS is encouraging states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of the TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, aka welfare), particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find and retain employment,” the memo reads. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wanted “to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”

That’s when things went off the rails.

“Obama guts welfare reform,” was the headline of a blog on the conservative Heritage Foundation website. Author Robert Rector declared flatly, “The new policy guts the federal work requirements that were the foundation of the [1996 welfare] reform law.”

It didn’t take long for Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign to release an attack ad. “But on July 12, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements,” a narrator calmly explains. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check. And welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare.”

The only problem? It’s not true. The federal memo and accompanying letter repeatedly say the goal of any waivers would be to promote employment, not end the work requirements.

“The secretary is interested in using her authority to approve waiver demonstrations that challenge states to engage in a new round of innovation that seeks to find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment,” the memo reads.

And again: “Moreover, HHS is committed to ensuring that any demonstration projects approved under this authority will be focused on improving employment outcomes and contributing to the evidence base for effective programs.”

One more: “The secretary is only interested in approving waivers 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.”

Knowing this, government officials rose to defend the waiver program. Former President Clinton – pictured and mentioned in the Romney ad – declared it false. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the same. But both men added something else: The waiver policy had been requested by the states of Nevada and Utah.

That, of course, led Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval to a swift and immediate denial. Nevada only sought to explore the idea of a waiver, and never requested one, said spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner. Moreover, the state would not be requesting one, she said.

And that’s too bad, because if Nevada can find a way to get more people working rather than receiving welfare, that would be a good thing. And we shouldn’t lose that chance because some alarmists at the Heritage Foundation and a political campaign made an issue out of nothing.


Steve Sebelius is author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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