According to a statement by the Obama Administration in March, a House bill that reinforces the welfare work requirements of the 1996 reform act equates to an “unnecessary bar to innovative welfare-to-work strategies.”

What are these “innovative” strategies? Last year, the Obama Administration simply waived compliance with the already lenient requirements of the welfare reform law that able-bodied welfare recipients engage in some type of work in order to receive the benefits. In exchange for the waiver, states will have to increase “employment exits”—people who leave welfare due to finding employment—by 20 percent.

This attempt to replace work requirements with an increase in employment exits may sound reasonable and innovative—it is neither.

First, increasing employment exits by 20 percent is actually a miniscule change. As Heritage Foundation welfare policy expert Robert Rector states, “To meet this standard, the typical state would merely need to increase the number of monthly ‘employment exits’ from 1.5 percent of caseload to 1.8 percent.”

Second, using employment exits as a measurement of success is hardly innovative. The percentage of employment exits is an unhelpful, decades-old sham statistic. Rector continues:

States have kept statistics on employment exits for decades, but they have always been meaningless as a measure of success.… [W]elfare caseloads always have routine turnover. The larger the caseload, the greater the number of exits.… Historically, the number of employment exits rises as welfare caseloads rise and falls when welfare caseloads fall; increases in employment exits are negatively correlated to reductions in caseloads and dependence. For this reason, Congress deliberately excluded “employment exits” as a performance measure when crafting the 1996 welfare reform law.

If employment exits were used as the standard, the pre-1996 welfare system would have been viewed as an overwhelming success: Employment exits nearly doubled—while the number of people on welfare increased by roughly one-third.

However, common sense says that simply increasing the rate of routine turnover does no good if the number of welfare dependents also grows. The stunning success of the 1996 reform is that the number of people on welfare fell—by half within five years of the reform’s implementation—and with it, the number who enter and exit the program. Employment rates among low-income Americans also increased, and the child poverty rate plunged within just a few years of the reform.

What is the purpose of the Obama Administration’s waiver strategy? “The only reason you’d need a waiver would be to lessen the work requirement,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R–MI) said.

Instead of gutting the work requirements, policymakers should strengthen them. More of the roughly 80 different federal welfare programs should include work participation standards, with the ultimate goal of moving the United States from a welfare society to an opportunity society.

T. Elliot Gaiser is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.