The welfare debate, and why it’s back

August 21, 2012

With DeLorean-like speed, welfare has jumped to center stage as an election issue after hibernating for more than a decade.

Mitt Romney's initial attacks on Obama for allowing state's to propose their own alternatives to the traditional welfare work targets earned four Pinocchios from the Post's Fact Checker. The Obama campaign's responses earned three.

But Romney has produced a new ad on the same issue, begging the question of how much this issue matters (if at all) and why Romney is focusing on it.

A new poll from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation provides some clues. In the 16 years since Bill Clinton and Republicans joined forces to pass welfare reform, Democrats and Republicans have grown farther apart on the basic question of whether government should try to improve living standards or leave people should take care of themselves.

The survey -- conducted July 25 to August 5 among more than 3,000 randomly selected adults -- repeated the same question asked in 1996, asking respondents which statement came closer to their view:

1. "The government in Washington should do everything possible to improve the standard of living of all Americans."

2. "This is not the government's responsibility, each person should take care of themselves."

The overall numbers hardly changed at all -- 51 percent said government should improve living standards in 1998, 52 percent in 2012. But beneath the surface, Republicans and Democrats were on the move.

Fully 71 percent of Republicans now say "each person should take care of themselves," up from 59 percent in 1998. An even higher percentage of Democrats now say take the opposite view -- 76 percent -- up 11 points from 1996.

Romney's focus on welfare — whose key purpose is to assure a minimum standard of living — could energize his party's base, which is much more dubious about the government's role in lending a helping hand.

It also may help cement Obama to a "big government" image in a negative way. Seven in 10 Americans thought Obama preferred a "larger government with more services" in a Washington Post-ABC News poll last year. And in a Post-ABC poll last month, independents said by 42 to 20 percent that Obama's views on the "size and role of government" were a major reason oppose him rather than support him (34 percent said they weren't a factor).

There are risks for Romney as well. In pushing the issue, Romney will have to fend off accusations of race baiting and could draw even more focus to his own personal wealth.

No matter how it plays out, it's clear that partisans are even more ripe for the debate as they were in the 1990s.

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Aaron Blake · August 21, 2012