Whose side is he on? Mitt Romney’s assault against President Barack Obama’s welfare reform policy sounds good, except that it gets in the way of putting welfare recipients to work.
In a July 12 directive, President Barack Obama’s administration invited the states to apply for waivers from welfare reform that require recipients to get a job, seek a job or engage in job training.
That opened up an opportunity for his challenger Mitt Romney and other Republicans to charge, as a Romney campaign ad puts it, that the president is single-handedly trying to “gut” President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare overhaul “by dropping work requirements, …”
Since the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, anyone seeking cash assistance has faced strict work requirements and a five-year lifetime limit. But “(u)nder Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,” says the narrator in the Romney ad. “They would just send you your welfare check. And welfare-to-work goes back to being just plain old welfare. Mitt Romney will restore the work requirement because it works.”
But the directive’s aim is to improve welfare-to-work, not gut it. Major fact-checking organizations tend to agree. PolitiFact gave the ad a “Pants on Fire” rating, calling a “drastic distortion.” FactCheck.org gave a similarly low rating. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler gave “four Pinocchios” to Romney and three to Team Obama for insufficient evidence to back up their claim that Romney sought the same sort of waiver authority when he was governor.
Yet Obama’s waivers might well have been greeted as sound conservative policy, returning power to the innovative laboratory of the states, if they had come from a Republican president. But Obama is a Democratic incumbent, which would give him special vulnerability on the welfare issue even if he were not a mixed-race man of African descent.
Politically, welfare reform is a potent political wedge issue. It brings up images of able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. It touches all the hot buttons of race, class, culture, poverty and morality, as exemplified by the near-mythological “Welfare Queen” against which Ronald Reagan railed during his presidential rise.
It took the great triangulator Bill Clinton to defuse the issue enough to bring positive changes. In his 1992 campaign Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” In the 1996 law, pressed by a Republican Congress and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, he accepted tougher welfare-to-work requirements than he preferred. But he did win concessions that helped to ease the transition from welfare to work.
The result: Welfare dependency went down, along with child poverty, as employment of welfare recipients went up, helped along by the 1990s economic boom. Even in today’s sluggish economy, the Brookings Institution, one of the reform’s main authors, told the Washington Post that never-married mothers, the likeliest demographic group to be on welfare, are still working at rates higher than they were before the reforms.
Enter President Obama. Team Romney insists that the new Obama policy opens the door to a weakening of work requirements because it allows states to give a higher priority to the type of work recipients take than to their participation rate. “If I am president,” Romney said in suburban Elk Grove Village, Ill., last week, “I will put work back in welfare.” But the Obama policy explicitly states that waivers will be granted only to proposals that will increase the percentages of cases to be moved off welfare rolls.
At least five governors, including Republicans Gary Herbert of Utah and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, have been seeking such regulatory relief for years, the White House pointed out. In return, the directive offers states a new level of flexibility and breathing room for innovation, something that Republicans and conservatives usually favor.
Now Romney has put his fellow Republicans in the awkward position of defending their requests to reporters without stepping on his claim that Obama’s directive hurts welfare reform.
In fact, state governments have little incentive, especially in this economy, to load up their welfare rolls with nonworkers. If the states have good ideas to make welfare-to-work more efficient and turn more tax users into taxpayers, let them try.