Facts, Not Opinions, On Welfare Reform

It looks increasingly likely that the Romney campaign will shrug off shocked criticisms of the candidate’s perniciously mendacious “welfare ad” and count on the media to retreat to he-said, she-said reporting of the brouhaha as just another partisan food-fight.

If so, it was almost certainly a mistake, as I’ve noted earlier, for Mitt’s ad-makers to include an approving reference to (and image of) Bill Clinton in the ad, which made the Big Dog’s rebuke of the ad’s central thrust both certain and credible. But another shot fired in anger at the ad comes from a source even harder for GOPers to ignore: long-time Republican welfare policy advisor Ron Haskins, who debunked the ad’s claims about “Obama’s plan” to “gut” welfare reform in an interview with NPR. As quoted by HuffPost’s Amada Terkel, Haskins had this to say:

“There’s no plausible scenario under which [the administration’s welfare reform waiver policy] really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform,” Ron Haskins, who is now co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, said in an interview with NPR that aired on Wednesday.

Haskins spent 14 years on the staff of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Human Resources Subcommittee, first as welfare counsel to the Republican staff, then as the subcommittee’s staff director. In 2002, he was President George W. Bush’s senior adviser on welfare policy….

Haskins noted that the requirements states have to meet in order to receive the waivers are quite rigorous.

“First of all, the states have to apply individually for waivers,” he said. “And they have to explain in detail, sometimes using data, why this approach would lead to either more employment or better jobs for people who are trying to welfare or get off welfare.”

These are, of course, almost exactly the points being made by HHS, the Obama campaign, and Bill Clinton in disputing the ad, which again, does not simple insinuate that Obama’s trying to “gut” welfare reform, but flatly says he has already achieved the “gutting” by abolishing work requirements and just mailing out checks to those people who may now sit on their butts and laugh at the poor dumb white middle-class taxpayers who are subsidizing their easy lifestyles.

Beyond everything I’ve already said about this ad, I’d also note Harold Pollack’s fine post today at Ten Miles Square about the realities of TANF, and how far it is from even the conservative caricatures of the old AFDC program:

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…..”

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.

So this is all just the purest kind of demagoguery based on lies stacked on top of distortions, and designed to play (as I put it in a TNR post today on the subject) with racial and cultural dynamite. Maybe this last assertion on my part is just an opinion, albeit an informed opinion. But the fundamental dishonesty of this latest Romney campaign tactics is a matter of fact beyond serious dispute.

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.