The Fact Checker: 4 Pionocchios

Spin and counterspin in the welfare debate

“Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

— Mitt Romney campaign ad released Aug. 7, 2012

“This is a common sense reform to give governors — including some of Romney’s supporters — flexibility to live up to the goals of the welfare reform law. Romney should know: He used to support these kinds of waivers. In 2005, he joined other Republican governors in a letter to Senator Frist, urging the Senate to move quickly on ‘increased waiver authority’ for the welfare program.”

— Obama campaign defense on its Web site

When Bill Clinton signed the bill overhauling welfare 16 years ago, the 42nd president declared: “After I sign my name to this bill, welfare will no longer be a political issue. The two parties cannot attack each other over it. Politicians cannot attack poor people over it. There are no encrusted habits, systems, and failures that can be laid at the foot of someone else.”

Oops, guess he was wrong about that.

In an effort to reopen the welfare war, Mitt Romney this week began airing a tough ad that accuses President Obama of wanting to do away with the work requirements embedded in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. In effect, Romney is trying to suggest that Obama is such a left-winger that he would undo a central achievement of a Democratic icon.

People forget that Clinton’s signing of the bill — a few months before the 1996 presidential election — was highly controversial. Clinton, in his signing speech, spent almost as much time talking about the things he disliked in the GOP-crafted bill as he did about the parts he liked. Key members of his administration resigned in protest. And a young state senator in Illinois named Barack Obama also expressed his opposition.

This is a complex issue, and highly technical, which makes it ripe for spin and counterspin. Neither side necessarily conducts itself with glory here.

The Facts

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the centerpiece of the 1996 legislation, established work requirements and time-limited benefits for recipients. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services, without much fanfare, issued a memorandum saying that it was encouraging “states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF, particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment.” As part of that, the HHS secretary would consider issuing waivers to states concerning worker participation targets.

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