Working to Understand the Welfare Debate

Voters can't depend on the candidates for clarity about planned changes to welfare reform.

Mitt Romney Campaign
Mitt Romney Campaign

Given that last year the president said, “We’re going to look every single day to figure out what we can do without Congress,” this waiver policy quickly became one more example of the president’s effort to expand executive power by picking and choosing which laws his administration will enforce (recall the president’s decision to no longer enforce the Defense of Marriage Act?).

His actions sparked an immediate war of words and accusations across the political spectrum. As the Atlantic noted: “To liberals — including, perhaps, then-state Sen. Barack Obama, who opposed federal welfare reform at the time — this is just what they feared welfare reform would do: make sorely needed government benefits less available to those who need them most. But to conservatives, the fact that fewer people are on welfare now proves that reform has worked.”

“The 1996 law was arguably the most successful policy change to help low-income Americans in the past 60 years,” writes American Enterprise Institute President Arthur C. Brooks in the Wall Street Journal. “According to the U.S. government, welfare reform helped to move 4.7 million Americans from welfare dependency to self-sufficiency within three years of enactment. The overall federal welfare caseload declined by 54 percent between 1996 and 2004.”

Enter presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney, who hit back hard with a campaign ad accusing the president of effectively gutting welfare reform. The ad claims that under the rule, “you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job.” The problem: The ad was quickly denounced as misleading by independent observers, including members of the Republican 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 original welfare law.

But, as Haskins admits, “This could be a very effective thing for Romney to do.”

What? Distort the facts? Is this what we want from these candidates — a campaign erroneously claiming the president wants “to end welfare reform as we know it” (Romney) or inferring that Romney is responsible for the death of someone’s spouse (Obama)?

Needless to say, the back and forth between the two campaigns has confused the debate to the point that it is hard to know, let alone understand, what is true or false about the welfare changes proposed by the administration. Moreover, it remains unclear whether such changes will give the kind of flexibility to the states Gov. Romney called for in 2005, or if this whole issue just another trip down the political rabbit hole.

What a sad commentary — and what a lost opportunity for those on welfare who define the word “work” as getting a job. 

Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is currently a political analyst for MSNBC.

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