Nor, alas, can states always be trusted to practice tough love. Enforcing genuine work requirements is costly and unpleasant. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office noted that some states meet them with a generous interpretation of what counts as work -- including "personal journaling," "smoking cessation," "weight loss promotion" and "helping a friend or relative with household tasks and errands."
HHS noted that one of the states seeking more flexibility is Nevada, which has a Republican governor. But as Daily Caller blogger Mickey Kaus notes, Nevada proposed to exempt some recipients from work requirements for six months.
Why is it important to attach work mandates to welfare checks? One reason is that it weeds out people who are poor because they prefer not to put up with the demands of an employer. Weeding those out saves money.
Another is that it pushes recipients to do something that may be unappealing in the short run -- take a low-wage job -- but will serve their interests in the long run. Even in today's slow economy, notes Mead, only 12 percent of the nonworking poor say they can't find a job.
Equally vital, a work requirement respects the sacrifices of those who pay the taxes to fund welfare programs. Most Americans don't object to government aid for those unable to help themselves: children, the elderly and the disabled. But they resent subsidizing able-bodied adults without expecting something in return.
The 1996 law addressed that legitimate concern. It has been a great success in reducing welfare caseloads and moving poor mothers into the workforce.
We can hope that in revamping the regulations, Obama will make a good program better. But he could also make it worse.