Who’s Really Threatening to “Gut” Welfare Reform?

So the lies go on: yesterday the Romney/Ryan campaign put out a set of talking points commemorating the sixteenth anniversary of Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1996 welfare reform legislation by continuing to ignore Clinton’s own rebuke of their race-baiting, mendacious ads on the subject and repeating the lies all over again.

But Team Mitt stepped in at least one cow pie in the latest broadside: linking to a 2006 Clinton op-ed ruminating on the lessons of the original debate over welfare reform. Here are some excerpts that I don’t think the Romney campaign really wants anyone to read or think about:

Most Democrats and Republicans wanted to pass welfare legislation shifting the emphasis from dependence to empowerment. Because I had already given 45 states waivers to institute their own reform plans, we had a good idea of what would work. Still, there were philosophical gaps to bridge. The Republicans wanted to require able-bodied people to work, but were opposed to continuing the federal guarantees of food and medical care to their children and to spending enough on education, training, transportation and child care to enable people to go to work in lower-wage jobs without hurting their children…..

The success of welfare reform was bolstered by other anti-poverty initiatives, including the doubling of the earned-income tax credit in 1993 for lower-income workers; the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which included $3 billion to move long-term welfare recipients and low-income, noncustodial fathers into jobs; the Access to Jobs initiative, which helped communities create innovative transportation services to enable former welfare recipients and other low-income workers to get to their new jobs; and the welfare-to-work tax credit, which provided tax incentives to encourage businesses to hire long-term welfare recipients.

I also signed into law the toughest child-support enforcement in history, doubling collections; an increase in the minimum wage in 1997; a doubling of federal financing for child care, helping parents look after 1.5 million children in 1998; and a near doubling of financing for Head Start programs.

The recent welfare reform amendments, largely Republican-only initiatives, cut back on states’ ability to devise their own programs. They also disallowed hours spent pursuing an education from counting against required weekly work hours. I doubt they will have the positive impact of the original legislation.

We should address the inadequacies of the latest welfare reauthorization in a bipartisan manner, by giving states the flexibility to consider higher education as a category of “work,” and by doing more to help people get the education they need and the jobs they deserve. And perhaps even more than additional welfare reform, we need to raise the minimum wage, create more good jobs through a commitment to a clean energy future and enact tax and other policies to support families in work and child-rearing.

As you probably know, it’s by expressing an openness to state flexibility in achieving job placement goals by considering some kinds of education and training a suitable “work” activity that has supposedly exposed the Obama administration to the charge of “gutting” welfare reform, if not to the 100% dishonest assertion that it is eliminating all work requirement and just mailing checks out unconditionally.

But beyond the testimony, past and present, of Bill Clinton that the Obama administration is closely hewing to the original design of welfare reform–despite Obama’s own original misgivings about the legislation–there’s all these other make-work-pay provisions that Clinton and most other welfare reform advocates in both parties considered essential: a robust EITC and minimum wage; food assistance; medical assistance; child care; Head Start; job training; and yes, education assistance. The Ryan Budget proposes scaling back the EITC and radically reducing both food assistance and the availability of health insurance for the working poor, not to mention the drastic non-defense discretionary budget cuts it demands that are almost certain to devastate every other “work support” offered by federal or state governments.

The supreme irony of the Romney/Ryan assault on Obama is that it’s the accusers who are guilty of proposing to “gut” work-based welfare reform, which is not and never was just a matter of imposing work requirements and time-limits and expecting all those lazy women-with-kids to get off their duffs and accept those plentiful, well-paying jobs. While no one expects the GOP campaign to admit they’d unravel nearly every policy that made the 1996 law work as well as it did, they should at least have the decency to stop accusing Obama of “gutting” an initiative whose spirit and letter they reject root and branch.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.