Political Animal


August 07, 2012 12:44 PM Romney’s Welfare Gambit

By Ed Kilgore

At first it was just a buzz from right-wing think tanks (particularly Heritage’s Robert Rector, who has long been the Darth Vader of poverty policy) and blogs, and a few conservative pols, but it’s sure gone Big-Time now: the claim that the Obama administration is “gutting” the 1996 welfare reform law is the subject of Mitt Romney’s latest ad, and looks like it will be featured in his speeches as well.

This is kind of personal with me. I worked on welfare policy back in the 90s at the Progressive Policy Institute, which was the absolute hotbed of “work first” approaches to welfare reform. Indeed, we were about the only people in the non-technical chattering classes who seemed to understand the distinction between the Clinton administration’s philosophy of welfare reform (aimed at getting welfare recipients into private-sector jobs, not just through work requirements but with robust “making work pay” supports like an expanded EITC, which was enacted at Clinton’s insistence well before welfare reform) and that of congressional Republicans (House Republicans were mainly concerned about punishing illegitimacy and denying assistance to legal immigrants, while Senate Republicans enacted a bill that was just a straight block grant that let states do whatever they wanted so long as they saved the feds money).

I mention this ancient history to point out the rich irony of conservatives now attacking Obama for an alleged hostility to the private-sector job placement emphasis they never gave a damn about, and for giving states more flexibility in administering the federal cash assistance program, which GOPers at every level of government (including Mitt Romney) were clamoring for loudly before, during and after the 1996 debate.

In terms of the “merits,” such as they are, of the Republican critique, (1) you cannot technically speaking “gut” a law by exercising waiver authority the law itself provides; (2) the administration is emphatically not abolishing work requirements, time limits, or any of the other basic architecture of the 1996 law; and (3) announcing an intention to entertain waiver applications from the states is not the same as granting them, much less granting them for the pernicious reasons Romney and company are claiming. The Romney ad’s claim that the administration has abolished work and training requirements and will simply mail checks (meager as they are, particularly in Republican-governed states) to everyone is a bold-faced lie.

More fundamental, of course, is the fact, which you might think Republicans would remember since they talk about it with every breath, that the economy is not creating a lot of jobs right now. Liberal critics warned back in 1996 that a reform scheme that might work in the red-hot tight-labor-market economy of that time would not necessarily work so well in a recession, and they were right (which is one reason that the Clinton administration and us Work First advocates favored a back-up paid community service option, which most conservatives were not interested in). If ever there was an appropriate time to relax specific work requirements to give recipients a few more options, this is it.

Wonkery aside, it’s no mystery why the Romney campaign and its supporters are pursuing this dishonest and deeply hypocritical tack. In a “memorandum” released to support the new ad’s claims, Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chan accuses Obama of inflicting “a kick in the gut to the millions of hard-working middle-class taxpayers struggling in today’s economy, working more for less but always preferring self-sufficiency to a government handout.” It’s the old welfare-queen meme, which Republicans have already been regularly reviving in their attacks on the Affordable Care Act, on Medicaid, on food stamps, and in their much broader and horrifyingly invidious claims that poor and minority people deliberately taking out mortgages they knew they couldn’t afford caused the whole housing market collapse and the financial crisis that followed.

The claim that Obama is quietly bringing back the old welfare system is perfectly designed to bring back the old politics of the 1980s, when Republicans constantly (and often successfully) sought to pit middle-class voters against the poor while distracting attention from the vast welfare system supporting corporations and the wealthy.

Unlike ACA, Medicaid or even food stamps, there’s very little public support for the pre-1996 welfare system. So Romney and conservatives can go absolutely wild with this attack line, hauling in every racial innuendo imaginable with relatively little fear of blowback. As a bonus, I am sure Team Mitt is abundantly aware that many progressives disliked the 1996 law intensely and/or thought Clinton “caved” to Republicans in signing it (and I can confidently say that even those Democrats who approved of Clinton’s action were for the most party deeply conflicted about it; I certainly was). So they probably hope their attacks spur some internal recriminations within Obama’s own party and voting coalition.

All in all, this development in the campaign is a very nasty piece of work that I hope, but do not expect, Republicans come to regret.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • John on August 07, 2012 12:53 PM:

    This just shows the pernicious power of Big Poverty to corrupt our governmental system.

  • biggerbox on August 07, 2012 1:09 PM:

    Next I expect they'll tell us the first check was sent to Willie Horton.

  • c u n d gulag on August 07, 2012 1:14 PM:

    Mitt has nothing left to run on.
    Not his time in business.
    Not his time in the Olympics.
    Not his time as Governor of MA.

    And the Republican Party has nothing to run on - or, at least that they'll admit to.

    So, the next 3 months will be spent looking for any, and every, wedge issue they think will garner votes.

    I'm sticking to ny prediction that the "N-word" is right around the corner - and not said by some back-bencher.

    Someone fairly prominant will let it slip. And we'll have to figure out if it was by accident or not.

  • Ron Byers on August 07, 2012 1:17 PM:

    This lie will not be stopped unless the talking heads stop it. Any bets?

  • Margy Waller on August 07, 2012 1:21 PM:

    Thank you, Ed Kilgore! All that....and: progressives tread in dangerous territory when they respond by attacking work benefits with great + proven outcomes that Romney happened to fund as Governor. Cars for workers was an idea PPI proposed too. Now some are reviving the conservative attack on Romney for a great program in Mass. This is bad for long- term public understanding of the issue AND runs the risk of making Romney look reasonable to independents.

  • Robert Waldmann on August 07, 2012 1:49 PM:

    There you go again trying to claim that the EITC increase was, in some way, part of welfare reform. At least you are now admitting that EITC was increased long before AFDC became TANF (3 years in particular). But the claim that they are somehow linked in anything other than your self justifying fantasy is not supported by any evidence.

    When I first read the EITC increase is part of welfare reform howler here, I asked my friend Brad DeLong who was deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for policy analysis in 1993 when the EITC was increased. He wrote back. I just got his permission to quote him in full with my e-mail (not in full) for context

    Dear Brad

    I knew I would get pissed at someone from the Progressive Policy Ist taking over from Drum the Benen. It took a while. The issue i, of course, welfare reform. This http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/political-animal-a/2012_04/ryan_budget_not_the_new_welfar036597.php
    Is appalling post by Ed Kilgore in many ways, but the part I found intollerable was ascribing the expansion of the EITC to welfare reform. I consider this to be simply a lie.

    Yes we should seek converts not heretics and the brand "welfare reform" is too strong to fight. But the truth is the truth. I think any historian who worked at the Clinton Treasury has an obligation to the truth to point out that Kilgore is grossly distorting history.

    Also [skip]


    Brad DeLong
    Apr 11

    to me
    OUCH! That is painful...

    IIRC the EITC expansion came about to offset the adverse distributional impact of the BTU tax...

    Brad DeLong

    Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong
    U.C. Berkeley
    925 708 0467

    He was there and you weren't.

    Now the point of your post is that Obama supports the 1996 welfare reform (he sure does and wrote that explicitly in The Audacity of Hope. But your claim that the EITC expansion of 1993 was part of it is just false.

  • JoanneinDenver on August 07, 2012 1:54 PM:

    Is there any objective evaluation of what has happened to women on the welfare rolls in the face of this economy collapse?

    I worked with women who were welfare eligible before the reforms of 1996. Maintaining medicaid eligibility for their kids was a top priority. Requirements that were set up to make sure that only the truly"deserving" poor had the negative consequence of encouraging people to "work off the books." Fathers had to "desert" families in order for the kids to be eligible for medicaid, etc. Working women depressed their wages in order to remain eligible for childcare and medical care. With the full employment economy of the late 90s and early 2000's, women may have been able to get jobs with benefits. But what happened when they were once again unemployed and had lost welfare eligibility
    because of the Clinton reforms??

  • MuddyLee on August 07, 2012 2:29 PM:

    The kick in my middle-class-white-male gut is that I have been paying a higher federal tax rate than Mitt Romney the one-percenter all these years. MITT is enjoying a welfare program - tax cut welfare for the very rich (thanks George Bush, Karl Rove, and all you other anti-American crazy conservative republicans). If Mitt and other rick people paid the same federal tax rate that his dad George Romney used to pay, there wouldn't be any federal deficit problems and there wouldn't be as severe an unemployment problem because there would be a lot more government spending - and this would be good for people in the middle and at the bottom.

  • Josef K on August 07, 2012 2:35 PM:

    The saddest aspect of this whole policy 'debate' is that neither side seems willing or able to put forth how this isn't about simple economics or paychecks or state and local budgets. Its about people, and more specifically about the lives and health of children everywhere!

    The Republicans are turning positively sociopathic in this, and the Democrats aren't proving much better. I fear its going to take something truly horrific to shake everyone out of this lethargy.

  • T2 on August 07, 2012 2:56 PM:

    I'm sure Polti-Fact will quickly point out the ad as a Pants on Fire LIE.

  • Shoo Fitz-Wearit on August 07, 2012 3:42 PM:

    How to handle the lies? Ask Ed Rendell, former Governor of Pennsylvania.

    He said this, regarding how John Kerry should have responded to the swiftboat attacks, while discussing his book "A Nation of Wusses: How America's Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great", on Charlie Rose recently:

    Look in the camera and say "How dare they attack my war record."

    He does that, boom he's POTUS. Because he looks like a leader.

    Hello, where has this thinking been hiding? If you have the ear of someone who might benefit from such advice, please pass it along.


    Approx 11:00 minutes in.

  • Doug on August 07, 2012 6:42 PM:

    Robert Waldman, again with the hyper-ventilating?
    I'm presuming you're upset about the following:
    "...the Clinton administration's philosophy of welfare reform (aimed at getting welfare recipients into private-sector jobs, not just through work requirements but with robust 'making work pay' supports like an expanded EITC, which was enacted at Clinton's insistance well before welfare reform)..."
    In the above Mr. Kilgore states that the welfare policy of the Clinton administration was to get people who were on welfare into private jobs. However, the Clinton administration apparently did not wish to simply mandate a work requirement (that's sooo Republican!), but also wished to ensure that there would be a sufficient monetary differential between welfare and work.
    That differential WOULD WORK LIKE AN EXPANDED EITC; ie, it would operate on the same principles as the EITC, but solely in regards to employment and not any other factor.
    Mr. Kilgore DOES state that the EITC was enacted at Mr. Clinton's insistance BEFORE welfare reform, but he DOES NOT say that the EITC was LINKED to welfare reform. Mr. Kilgore DOES say that the Clinton administration wished for something along the lines of the EITC to be included in welfare reform. See the difference?
    Nor does your inclusion of Mr. DeLong's email prove anything against Mr. Kilgore who, as shown above, has acknowledged that the EITC preceded welfare reform and has never posted otherwise. At least not here, anyway and that's been where your complaints have appeared.
    Again, I fail to understand your position which is, apparently, that neither before nor after the EITC was enacted was it EVER considered in relation to ANY OTHER program or policy and anyone who thinks it might is, in YOUR words, committing heresy.

  • steverino on August 07, 2012 8:55 PM:

    ...it is even a bald-faced lie. We must tow the line and not give our imagination free reign.

    Sorry. I don't know what came over me. I think I'm going to loose my mind.

  • Ron McCune on August 08, 2012 1:41 AM:

    Each company has only so much money coming in as revenue. When those at the top of the ladder of wage earners, the rich, take a lot of money for themselves in salary and benefits it leaves less for the rest of those workers in the company. When those workers on the middle part of the ladder in wage earning category, the middle class, have only a little money left over after paying for the basic necessities of living then they can only buy a little bit more products each month to fuel the economy. When those at the bottom of the ladder in the wage earning category, the poor class, only barely make enough to survive then they can’t buy anything each month to fuel the economy. In fact many at the bottom of the ladder in the wage earner category need government assistance of one kind or another in order just to survive. For those at the top of the economic wage earning ladder like Romney to bad mouth the work efforts of those at the bottom of the economic ladder and saying that the poor working class need to stop their dependency and insult the poor by saying that they need to ‘need to restore a culture of good work’ is ridiculous. The reason the middle class and the poor class don’t have a lot of money is because the rich upper class took too much of the companies funds for themselves and didn’t leave enough for the middle class and the poor class to have enough funds to fuel the economy or to live on. There is a revolution going on in this election as it was in every election since 1980 when the Republicans had our government adapt the voodoonomics style of government and it looks like every election we have in the future. This is a revolution between the rich like Romney and those that they brainwashed against the rest of us. You voters are going to have to decide if you want the rich like Romney to use voodoonomics to keep most of the funds from the payrolls from the companies we work for for themselves or are we going to not! Read my web page at www.mybetteramericaplan.com to see why we need to vote for President Obama and the Democrats and why Romney and the Republicans are bad for America.

  • DHFabian on August 08, 2012 9:59 AM:

    Welfare reform as we got it DOES need to be gutted for a full range of reasons that harm both the poor and the average middle class worker, and Clinton himself initially stated that (until it became clear that the middle class couldn't care less about the poor). It would have been great to have an open, honest public discussion about the consequences of welfare reform, but that wouldn't have served the best interests of either party under the circumstances. The consequences, however, have proved to be far more costly than welfare itself, while increasing permanent poverty. When even those with college degrees are on the unemployment lines, welfare "reform" requires those with significant barriers to employment to "find jobs." Now we learn that the Obama administration intends to "reform" Social Security disability. It seems that he agreed to certain "concessions" in disability aid/policies in exchange for getting enough Republican cooperation to pass the election year middle class tax cut, which is vital to his chances of re-election. We don't know the details, and they aren't saying. This agreement was made shortly after the president had a "very productive" meeting with Bill Clinton. As some will recall, Clinton slashed disability benefits and required work of fully disabled adults (SSI/SSDI) who had dependent children. These policies were a hellish disaster, and they remained in place until Obama became president. It appears that President Obama changed his mind after his meeting with Clinton. Again, the administration won't provide the details, and it's reasonable to assume that they'll withhold that information until after the election. Like a lot of people, I can't in good conscience vote to re-elect Obama without the details of this plan.