Mitt Romney’s claim that President Barack Obama has quietly gutted the nation’s welfare overhaul may be a political winner with some voters.
Yet it’s an assertion that is at odds with the views of policy experts, the Republican governor who suggested the idea of more flexible rules, and former President Bill Clinton, who signed the landmark 1996 welfare reform into law.
In a new advertisement and on the campaign trail, Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, is criticizing an administration memo that would relieve states of federal welfare work quotas if they can present alternatives for moving more of the record number of impoverished Americans into permanent jobs.
Romney’s ad says that under the rule, “you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,” a claim rejected even by some members of his own party.
“People who didn’t know the details might be likely to believe it,” said Ron Haskins, a Republican and onetime legislative aide who helped draft the welfare law. Even so, “this could be a very effective thing for Romney to do.”
The line of attack speaks to concern among white working class voters, a crucial constituency for Romney, as well as independents that the government is catering to the highest and lowest rungs of society at their expense, said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.
It also involves welfare-to-work requirements that enjoy broad public support and plays into a Romney campaign charge that Obama wants to promote a culture of dependence.
“It creates an episode that vividly demonstrates the Republican criticism of Obama as a big-spending liberal,” said Jacobs, adding that any detailed rebuttal by the administration wouldn’t be as potent. “It’s going to take you five or six paragraphs to neutralize a one-sentence attack ad.”
The White House called the ad “categorically false.”
The 1996 law, enacted by Democrat Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress, imposed time limits and work rules on recipients. It also capped the amount of federal money sent to states, meaning it was no longer an open-ended entitlement available for as long as recipients are in need.
The welfare rolls plunged. An average of 4.4 million people received assistance in 2011, a drop of more than two-thirds since 1993, according to government statistics. Federal funding for the program has been held to about $16.5 billion a year since 1997.
Still, the program captures only a small share of the 46.2 million people the Census Bureau says were living in poverty in 2010. And in no state are benefits enough to push recipients to more than half the poverty line, according to a November report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, which advocates for policies to assist the poor.
The Obama administration said it’s willing to give states more latitude over the program to help them steer welfare recipients into the workforce even as the U.S. unemployment rate has been above 8 percent for 42 straight months.
Under the law, states are required to ensure that welfare recipients engage in federally defined work activities and can lose money if they fall short of targets. There are limits to how much of that time can be devoted to activities such as training or education aimed at helping people land jobs.
In the July 12 memo, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it would waive the requirements if states can propose more effective ways to place recipients in jobs. The waivers could be rescinded if the strategies aren’t working.
George Sheldon, the department’s acting assistant secretary, said in the memo that state officials had complained that the rules “stifle innovation and focus attention on paperwork rather than helping parents find jobs.”
Utah Governor Gary Herbert said he only wanted more flexibility to shepherd residents into jobs. And in a letter a year ago, the administration of Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, another Republican, expressed interest in being allowed more freedom to “increase the probability of families becoming self-sufficient.”
Romney says Obama has other motives. In the 30-second ad released by the campaign this week, he said the administration is dismantling work requirements established under the law.
The White House denied that, saying that to be granted a waiver, states must submit proposals that increase the number of people moving from welfare to work by 20 percent.
Haskins, the former Republican adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said it’s “implausible” to think Obama is trying to allow welfare recipients to collect checks without pursuing work.
States, he said, have no incentive to keep more people on welfare because the funding is capped. He said it would also be politically foolish for Obama to try to scrap provisions of the law during a re-election campaign.
“I do not believe the administration is using this to bring more people onto the welfare rolls,” he said. “The American public thinks people should work.”
Clinton released a statement calling the ad untrue and “especially disappointing” because, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney had sought a waiver.
In 2005, Romney joined with 28 other governors to urge Congress to give them more flexibility to run welfare. In 2007, the National Governors Association complained of burdensome rules tied to the program.
Defending the Ad
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul, in an interview with CNN this week, defended the ad, saying if the administration had no interest in eliminating work requirements it wouldn’t have opened the door to that.
“President Obama has been a vocal opponent of President Clinton’s bipartisan reform in the ’90s,” Saul said. “It should really come as no surprise that this would be something he would want to do.” She said Romney in 2005 was interested in more freedom, not weakening work requirements.
Robert Rector, a fellow at the Republican-leaning Heritage Foundation, said the law already allows sufficient flexibility and that Obama is trying to give states the tools to evade work requirements. “They’re not trustworthy,” he said of the administration. “It’s designed to game the system.”
Clinton used the 1996 law to help rehabilitate the Democratic Party’s image after his failed push for a universal health-care plan and his party’s 1994 election defeat in which it lost control of the U.S. House for the first time in four decades.
“It cemented his image as a moderate, as a reformer,” said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, which supports limited government.
What the law didn’t do was address the poverty rate.
“The expectation was people would leave welfare, get better paying jobs and be in a better spot, and that’s not what’s happened,” said Jacobs.
The poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, the highest since 1993, and the 46.2 million Americans living in poverty that year was the most in the 52 years the Census Bureau has been making such estimates. In a majority of states, the benefits are less than 30 percent of the poverty line, which in 2011 was $18,530 for a family of three, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“To say that there is a culture of dependency -- if it wasn’t so serious -- it would be laughable,” said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University Law School professor who resigned as assistant secretary of Clinton’s Health and Human Services Department to protest the 1996 law. “We don’t even have welfare anymore in most of the country.”
Romney is betting that his charge will resonate. “We will end a culture of dependency and restore a culture of good, hard work,” he told voters in Illinois this week.
The campaign dispatched former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped usher the 1996 reforms into law, to reinforce the theme by saying Obama’s administration has increased the number of Americans on food stamps. In 2008, the government spent $37.6 billion providing food stamps to 28 million people. In 2011, it spent $75.6 billion on 44.7 million people.
Still, even Gingrich acknowledged in an Aug. 8 interview on CNN that “we have no proof today” work requirements will be dropped. “If the ad makers have asked me, I would have said, ‘this makes it possible,’” he said.