Romney’s welfare-to-work attack on Obama not quite accurate, experts say

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 7, 2012 

— The Romney campaign on Tuesday accused President Barack Obama of gutting a signature success of the Clinton administration that links welfare benefits to work.

But the White House and Obama campaign officials pushed back aggressively, calling the claims “blatantly dishonest,” and their stance was bolstered by independent experts who said the Republican claims were exaggerated.

The Republican presidential campaign aired a 30-second television spot leveling the charges, and Romney built on them at a campaign event in Illinois, extolling the 1996 welfare reform act as “one of the greatest bipartisan successes we’ve seen” and telling the crowd that Obama “has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare.”

“That is wrong,” Romney said. “If I am president, I’ll put work back in welfare.”

The assault comes as Republicans have sought to portray Obama as a big-spending liberal who believes government is often the answer to the nation’s problems. But John Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, told reporters on an Obama campaign conference call that the ad was “completely false” and that the former president agreed with his assessment.

At issue is the administration’s decision last month to consider granting waivers to states that seek more flexibility to run the federally funded program. Republicans immediately accused the administration of looking to weaken the work requirements, prompting a letter from Health and Human Services Secretary Katherine Sebelius, who defended the change as a way to move more enrollees off welfare and into jobs “by utilizing state-based innovation.”

States have to apply for the waivers, and Sebelius wrote that waivers would only be granted to states that move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work. States also must demonstrate “clear progress toward that goal” or their waivers could be rescinded. In return, states get some relief from some of the administrative requirements of the law.

Administration officials noted that in 2005, 29 Republican governors – including then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – requested similar authority.

“Perhaps (Romney’s) argument is with his past self,” White House spokesman Jay Carney suggested.

Sebelius said the waivers those governors were proposing were “very far-reaching” and went beyond what the administration now would sanction. But she said that the governors of Utah and Nebraska – both Republicans – have more recently requested waivers.

Jonathan Burks, deputy policy director for the Romney campaign, charged in a conference call with reporters that the administration "took the (Utah) governor’s reasonable request for increased flexibility and used it to gut the core welfare-to-work requirement."

Policy experts said that at best, the Romney campaign’s charge that Obama “quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements” is an exaggeration.

Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution Center on Children and Families and a former Republican congressional committee staff director, said he believes the administration erred in not reaching out to Congress before it made the change.

But he called Romney’s assertion “clearly an overstatement.”

Haskins, who was staff director on the committee that helped draft the House bill that eventually resulted in the legislation Clinton signed, pointed out that contrary to the ad’s claim, the Obama administration’s offer of waivers “doesn’t do some broad overhaul.”

States would have to apply for the waiver and each state requesting a waiver would be required to show how the new approach would either “increase employment or lead to better employment,” Haskins said.

“If you just read the words (of the policy) it’s a reasonable kind of provision,” he said.

And Haskins noted that it would be to the states’ advantage to keep caseloads low, “so the idea that they’re going to use these waivers to bring all kinds of cases onto their rolls, it really doesn’t make sense.”

Liz Schott, a senior fellow with the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities’ welfare reform and income support division, said the Obama policy doesn’t weaken the welfare-to-work provision.

“It’s not about people not working,” she said, adding that the policy wouldn’t take effect until a state applied for – and received – a waiver. But she said the waiver could allow a state to run a demonstration project it believes will do a better job of connecting people to work than what it now does.

“The administration is saying this is only about work and about approving work,” she said.

Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com or dgoldstein@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark

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