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Dubious claim behind Romney welfare attack


The latest attack launched by Mitt Romney involves an assertion that President Obama has decided to "gut" popular welfare reforms instituted in the 1990s, transforming the public assistance program into a giveaway for the impoverished.

The presumptive Republican nominee hailed the welfare reforms achieved by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans, which conditioned receiving welfare on seeking work, as a bipartisan triumph of the 1990s. In the same breath, he accused Obama of trying to "reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare."

It's a charge that was echoed in a new television ad released Tuesday by the Romney campaign, as well as a conference call held this morning by senior advisers.

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hands with workers after a campaign event at Acme Industries in Elk Grove Village, Illinois August 7.

"By violating this fundamental piece of the block grant, you've now essentially made this into a blank check from the federal government to the states, with no work requirement at all," said Jonathan Burks, the Romney campaign's deputy policy director.

The TV ad charges that under this plan, proved by this memo, “you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

The charge is based on a July 12 memo issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, in which HHS said it would consider approving waivers for states seeking more flexibility in implementing welfare reform, officially known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

The memo prompted outrage from many congressional Republicans, who have charged the Obama administration is changing a requirement of a law passed by Congress in an executive branch power grab.

But does the memo do what the Romney campaign charges -- that it guts welfare reform, gets rid of work requirements entirely, and would “just send you your welfare check”?

Not exactly. The memo states, for instance, that HHS “will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF."

In other words, a state would have to offer an alternative program similar to the work requirements first put into place by the 1990s welfare reform law in order to receive the waiver.

The Romney campaign has homed in only on the fact that the work requirement could be waived by the government; they haven't spoken to the alternatives governors might offer as a replacement.

"If you look at the memorandum issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, one of the items in which they express their willingness to issue waivers is -- a project that demonstrates attainment of superior employment outcomes in lieu of participation rate requirements," Burks said Tuesday. "In other words, that's exactly the core of the welfare work requirement, is states reach the participation rate threshold. So they express their willingness to waive the core requirement, which is exactly what we're talking about here today."

At the root of these charges is an effort to paint Obama as especially liberal, even more than Clinton, whose championing of the original legislation was seen as a component of his centrist tone.

"Through this action, President Obama apparently believes that Bill Clinton was way too conservative, and that the Obama administration is and should be far, far to the left of the Clinton administration," Texas Republican Senate candidate Ted Cruz said on the Romney call.

Moreover, attacking welfare is a tried-and-tested strategy for Republicans. It's an issue they believe plays well in key swing states among middle- and working-class voters, whom the Romney campaign needs to win in November, and who might be more susceptible to an argument painting welfare recipients, essentially, as freeloaders.

The Obama campaign responded by noting that some governors -- Republicans, no less -- had requested this kind of greater flexibility granted by the HHS.

“The Obama administration, working with the Republican governors of states like Nevada and Utah, is giving states additional flexibility only if they move more people from welfare to work – not fewer," said spokeswoman Lis Smith, adding that Romney, as governor, "petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it."

The Romney campaign's Burks responded on the conference call by nothing that while Romney had sought flexibility in some areas, he'd never sought a waiver of the core work requirement.

But nuance often is the first casualty of a campaign as hard-fought and close as this one.

Case-in-point? The administration's HHS memo certainly does not make it so the federal government will now “just send you your welfare check," as the Romney campaign's television ad asserts.