Mitt Romney flashback: Stay-at-home moms need to learn ‘dignity of work’

at 01:38 PM ET, 04/15/2012

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Mitt Romney, it turns out, was against calling stay-at-home mothers “working moms” before he was for it.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes broke the news this morning. Back in January, Romney appeared at a town hall even in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he explained his position on welfare.

“While I was governor,” Romney said, “85 percent of the people on a form of welfare assistance in my state had no work requirement. I wanted to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child two years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless,’ and I said ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving daycare to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’”

Read that again: “I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.” And by “individuals,” Romney means “mothers.”

To understand this comment, you need to understand that there’s no such program as “welfare.” There’s only “TANF”: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. And the key word there is “families.” Welfare is not now, and never was, a program for poor people. It’s a program for poor mothers.

So what Mitt Romney was saying, in other words, was that he believes poor mothers should go out and get jobs rather than to stay home with their children. He believes that going out and getting a job gives mothers -- and everyone else -- “the dignity of work.” And so, finally, he believes that staying home and taking care of children is not “work,” and does not fulfill a “work requirement,” and does not give poor mothers “the dignity of work.” And he believes all of this strongly enough that, as governor of Massachusetts, he signed those beliefs into law.

On its own, there’s nothing particularly interesting about this admission. It’s more or less a position that both parties have shared since the 1996 welfare reform bill. But this week, Washington was gripped by an inane microscandal over a tweet by CNN contributor and Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen, who said Ann Romney had never worked “a day in her life.” The Romney campaign, hoping to make up its deficit among women voters, jumped on the comment. “I happen to believe that all moms are working moms,” said Romney.

It turns out he doesn’t. If you’re a poor mother in Massachusetts and you go to sign up for TANF, you’ll see you need to fulfill a “work requirement.” And you cannot fulfill it by being “a mom.” And that’s because of policy that Romney signed into law in Massachusetts, and Bill Clinton signed into law nationally.

That law has seen some real successes: The poverty rate for single mothers is lower now than before the legislation passed in 1996, and the labor-force participation rate is higher. Both parties brag about it routinely. But those numbers are only successes if you believe, as both parties do, that being a stay-at-home mother is not the same as working.

Over the past week, both parties decided to pander to stay-at-home mothers by forgetting this policy consensus and claiming they have always believed being a stay-at-home mother is “work.” But while they certainly believe parenting is toil, they don’t believe it is, in any real sense, work. And you can see that in the laws they’ve made.

After all, it’s not just TANF that doesn’t recognize parenting as “work.” Social Security doesn’t count parenting as “work.” The tax code doesn’t count parenting as “work.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t count parenting as “work.”

Those statutory distinctions don’t matter to wealthier parents like Ann Romney. She’s not looking for government benefits. Politicians can pander to her by merely recognizing the labor she puts in. But to poorer mothers, those benefits mean quite a lot. Politicians, however, don’t pander to poorer mothers. They put them to work.

 
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