Governor Romney has a new 30-second spot on the old standby of welfare reform.

YouTube video

The ad claims that President Obama…

Quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work. You wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.

At issue is a July 12 federal memorandum, which allows states greater flexibility in crafting their work requirements to move poor single moms into paid work. The spot rather grotesquely mischaracterizes what the Obama administration has done. To begin with, there’s no such thing as “Obama’s plan.” Welfare is mainly operated by the states, which enjoy all-too-wide discretion to impose stringent requirements on welfare recipients. States remain completely free to impose tight work and eligibility requirements—requirements that many fiscally-stressed states have tightened since President Obama took office.

Regular readers know that the 1996 welfare reform abolished a 60-year-old entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), replacing it with the avowedly transitional Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).The Obama administration’s memorandum does nothing to alter or weaken the central pillars of the 1996 law, including a five-year lifetime limit on federally-funded cash aid for most recipients, the removal of such assistance as a legal entitlement for low-income families, and a variety of other restrictions on individual recipients.

Right now, states are often rewarded for simply cutting recipients off, or for other activities that do not successfully place recipients into stable jobs. The Obama administration is granting waivers to do better. Under the July 12 memorandum, states must “explain in a compelling fashion” why their proposed approaches would provide “more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs” which “will allow participants to avoid dependence on government benefits.”

It’s rich that supposed guardians of federalism are in a snit because states might receive greater leeway to depart from a (conservative) federal policy agenda. The hypocrisy was not lost on the Obama administration, which rightly noted that Mitch Daniels, Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush and, Mitt Romney and a host of other GOP notables signed a 2005 Republican Governor’s Association letter asking that states be given even greater leeway for TANF waivers.

I’m inclined to give conservatives a bit of a hypocrisy-pass here. On issue after issue–from health reform to abortion to medical marijuana to the minimum drinking age, gun policy, and more–few people across the ideological spectrum deeply care about the division of labor between the federal government and the states. If the federal government happens to profess a more liberal position, conservatives pine eloquently about the states as laboratories of democracy and decry one-size-fits-all solutions. Liberals in-turn, argue that national constitutional or policy issues are at stake. If If the federal government happens to profess a more conservative position, everyone switches places in the federalism debate. There’s no sense complaining about anyone’s hypocrisy. Having seen several state governments in action, I tend to favor greater responsibility and authority moved to the federal level.

More generally, these Romney commercials warn us about a nonexistent problem: The supposed excessive generosity of cash assistance for poor families with children. The most pressing welfare problem is quite different: We’re neglecting millions of low-income families who need help. The number of Americans in poverty increased by ten million between 1996 and 2010. Unemployment among low-income single moms has correspondingly grown. Yet TANF serves a progressively declining share of children living in economic need. When welfare reform was enacted, 68 American families received AFDC/TANF benefits for every 100 families with children in poverty. By 2010, only 27 did.

Consider my own state of Illinois. In 1996, our monthly AFDC caseload averaged about 224,000 families. In 2011, the average caseload had dropped to less than 34,000. Nationwide, the number of families receiving such aid has declined by about 60 percent over the same period.

Benefit levels—always low–have declined, too. Our state’s maximum TANF monthly cash benefit for a family of three is about $432, down in inflation-adjusted terms by about 19 percent since 1996. University of Chicago students generally spend more than that on our individual cafeteria meal plan. If one throws in the value of food stamps, the maximum benefits available to Illinois TANF recipients reach 60 percent of the federal poverty line. We’re about average for the United States.

I get why Governor Romney wishes to change the subject to welfare rather than taxes or inequality. The 1996 welfare reform is popular. Poor single moms who rely on welfare are not.

I confess that I was never a big fan of the old AFDC. Benefits were too low. The idea of an open-ended cash entitlement for at-home single moms doesn’t express the ethic of mutual obligation that most Americans demand of public aid. Nor does this arrangement match current gender roles. Long-term dependence was a legitimate problem, though the reasons for such dependence were often grossly caricatured. The stigma of AFDC undermined more important and more effective efforts to help low-income people. Work requirements in some form seem both justified and necessary for the political legitimacy of welfare support. The outsized proportion of African-Americans and Latinos on the welfare rolls has always cast long shadows over TANF and many other public policies.

For decades, moms and children on welfare have played the role of disparaged stage extras in American politics. Conspicuously comfortable politicians offer all sorts of advice regarding how poor families should live their lives. It’s pretty disgusting to watch. These families deserve a lot better than they get.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.