WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has quietly opened the door for states to seek major changes in how they meet welfare-to-work requirements for some of their poorest residents, and leading conservatives are crying foul.
In a memo to states issued late Thursday, the US Health and Human Services Department said it is interested in approving state experiments that will help ‘‘find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment.’’
States will not be able to escape the work requirements of the landmark 1996 federal welfare reform law, the administration said, but they may get federal approval to try to accomplish the same goals by using different methods than those spelled out in the legislation.
Signed by President Clinton, the welfare reform law replaced a federal entitlement with grants to the states, while putting a time limit on how long families can get aid and requiring recipients to eventually go to work.
What started out as just another bureaucratic memorandum drew a swift rebuke from one of the authors of welfare reform, as well as from senior Republican lawmakers. Having battled to a standoff on President Obama’s health care law, welfare could become another social policy flash point between Republicans in Congress and the administration.
Robert Rector, a social policy expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation who helped draft the original legislation, said the administration’s move amounted to an end-run around the law’s work requirement and violates the law.
He was backed by House Ways and Means chief Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the panel that oversees welfare. Camp called the waiver plan ‘‘a brazen and unwarranted unraveling of welfare reform.’’ Hatch called it a ‘‘power grab.’’
The administration said the waiver program is a response to concerns from state officials — Republicans as well as Democrats — that the work requirements in the law are too rigid and create bureaucratic hurdles to actually placing welfare recipients in jobs.