Amid the debate about the Obama administration’s plans to change welfare’s work requirements, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation writes for National Review Online that those requirements ought to be strengthened.

Now, the Obama administration seeks to make “employment exits” the central performance standard of a radically revised TANF program. Paradoxically, by this standard, the pre-reform AFDC program was a stunning success: Employment exits nearly doubled in the decade before reform, even as caseloads were increasing by a third. By contrast, the post-reform TANF program has been a decided failure: Both exits and caseloads have fallen. So the Obama administration is not merely gutting welfare reform; it is standing welfare reform on its head.

Some 95 percent of the public believes that able-bodied recipients of government aid should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving assistance. By that standard, the existing TANF work rules are already too lenient. Half of able-bodied recipients receive a welfare check but perform no activity at all. Most Americans don’t know that the federal government runs over 80 means-tested welfare programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to low-income individuals. In 2011, these programs cost $927 billion and gave benefits to more than 100 million Americans, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient.

At the beginning of the year, only three of the 80 programs had a significant work requirement: the earned-income refundable credit, the additional-child refundable credit, and TANF. Now, in many states, the TANF work requirements will be weakened or eliminated.

Government should take the opposite course. TANF’s work-participation rates should be increased, to cover more recipients. In the long term, strong work-participation standards should be established for food stamps, public housing, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.