Simply False: Mitt Romney’s Cynical Welfare Nostalgia

Will Marshall, one of the designers and popularizers of the “work first” approach to welfare, deconstructs Romney’s bogus claim Obama wants to revive welfare as we once knew it.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Republicans really miss welfare—the issue, not the program.

For decades, they used it to drive a wedge between Democrats and white working-class voters. But the GOP had no choice but to drop “welfare queens” from its lexicon after President Bill Clinton signed a landmark bill in 1996 “ending welfare as we know it.”

Now Mitt Romney, running a thoroughly retro presidential campaign, is trying to bring the issue back to life. With all the subtlety and scrupulous regard for fact his campaign has shown in other attacks on President Obama—which is to say, absolutely none—it’s now accusing Obama of “unilaterally dismantling” the 1996 law by bureaucratic fiat.

What triggered this hyperbole was a Department of Health and Human Services decision last month to grant states waivers from federal welfare rules to help them cope with the effects of a prolonged economic slump. Liberals have had a field day noting that Romney’s attack on the HHS is doubly hypocritical: first because some Republicans were among the governors asking the agency for more flexibility, and second, because devolving decisions from Washington to the states is supposed to be a core principle for conservatives.

Proving once again that he does not fear the hobgoblins of inconsistency, Romney brushed such criticisms aside while stumping in Iowa on Wednesday. Instead, he accused the Obama administration of having “removed the requirement of work from welfare.”

That is simply false.

Romney’s claim that Obama wants to “gut” welfare reform is dog-whistle politics at its most cynical—an attempt by a fabulously wealthy plutocrat to bond with the white working class by resurrecting old resentments against the dependent (and disproportionately minority) poor.

Nonetheless, the administration has scrambled to extinguish any notion that it wants to weaken the “work first” approach to welfare. The decision to replace the old entitlement to cash welfare with work requirements and time limits not only has been broadly popular, it’s worked: Welfare rolls today are about 70 percent smaller than their pre-reform levels. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius issued a clarifying statement promising to ensure that states use their waivers to increase job placements.

Still, it does Democrats no good to deny that waivers are intended to ease the federal law’s work requirements. That’s one of the main reasons governors want them. At a time of stubbornly high unemployment, states are finding it hard to match welfare recipients to jobs, particularly the hardest cases, who face multiple barriers to work.

As someone who helped design and popularize the “work first” reforms of the 1990s, I have no interest in seeing the federal government backslide to the old, dependency-fostering system. One reason Romney’s attacks have gotten some traction is that some U.S. liberals never accepted the 1996 reform. Oddly, they regard the fact that welfare rolls have not expanded dramatically during the economic downturn as evidence that the program has failed. Some undoubtedly would like to “gut” the work requirements and time limits, and go back to the old model of training welfare recipients for “good” jobs rather than those that might actually be available.

This would be a huge mistake, and it behooves President Obama to speak out more forcefully for the work-centered approach that both parties embraced in 1996. But Romney’s demand that we rigidly cling to every jot and title of a reform hatched in the flush of prosperity makes little sense. When times are tough, U.S. social policy—no less than fiscal or monetary policy—should show some countercyclical flexibility.

The poverty rate has risen dramatically since the 1996 welfare reform, rising from 12.5 percent to more than 15 percent today. Some 12.5 million Americans are out of work, and with a ratio of job seekers to vacancies of four-to-one, many have simply stopped looking. And economic adversity hits low-income families hardest; about 1.5 million poor single mothers are jobless or lack cash aid. Meanwhile, the number of food-stamp recipients has soared to 46 million.

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Given these realities, the administration’s decision to offer the states waivers on a temporary basis, until job creation rates pick up, is certainly defensible. A better approach, however, would be to resurrect a highly successful jobs initiative in Obama’s 2009 stimulus package: the TANF Emergency Fund. States used $1.3 billion from the fund to subsidize private jobs for more than 260,000 people. Since pay far surpassed welfare or unemployment benefits, participants were able to pay their bills and gain valuable work experience.

The jobs program was also popular with employers, who found that hiring subsidized workers helped them expand their business and avoid layoffs, and it even won praise from Mississippi’s arch-conservative governor, Haley Barbour. Yet Congressional Republicans refused to extend the initiative when it ran out of money in 2010.

If Romney were serious about helping poor people get jobs, he would support such an approach, instead of wallowing in nostalgia for the good old days of welfare demagoguery.