CHICAGO: The old line is that there’s a simple way to know a politician is lying: His lips are moving. Odds are good that any lurid charge leveled against a candidate is largely fraudulent. So it was no surprise that when Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of gutting welfare work requirements, fact checkers said his trousers were conspicuously aflame.
They have a point. Romney claims that under the new Obama policy, “You wouldn’t have to work. … They just send you your welfare check.” In fact, no such changes have been made. As written, the policy merely gives states more leeway in their enforcement of work rules, subject to federal approval.
But — and I know this will come as a surprise — the Romney camp also has a point. If the revision wouldn’t single-handedly cripple the work requirement, it “has opened the door to changes in welfare reform that could destroy it from within.” So concludes New York University political scientist Lawrence Mead, one of the experts whose research paved the way for the “workfare” law passed in 1996.
He’s not alone. Romney’s critics cite Brookings Institution analyst Ron Haskins, who as a Republican committee aide helped draft the historic welfare reform measure — and who favors granting states more latitude. But he also told The Fiscal Times that if the administration “wanted to undermine the work requirement,” the new policy “is a way to do it.”
The change, announced by the Department of Health and Human Services in July, was advertised as an effort to encourage “innovative strategies” that “improve employment outcomes.” Some governors complain the existing regulations demand too much paperwork. HHS says, “Waivers that weaken or undercut welfare reform will not be approved.”
That’s good to hear, but it may not be sensible to accept bureaucratic assurances at face value. Early in his career, Obama said he was no fan of the 1996 law that imposed strict work mandates on recipients.
Even Bill Clinton, who had promised to “end welfare as we know it,” vetoed two reform measures before signing this one over the objections of liberals. An HHS official who resigned in protest called it “the worst thing Bill Clinton has done.”
So it’s possible that some people in the government have never made their peace with work requirements and would like to weaken them. That’s the suspicion of Douglas Besharov, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, who in 1996 helped persuade Hillary Clinton to support the law.
“If the Obama administration believes in work requirements, why write something so broad?” Besharov asked me. “If I believed in the work requirements, I wouldn’t put in language encouraging states to lift them all.”
Nor, alas, can states always be trusted to practice tough love. Enforcing genuine work requirements is costly and unpleasant. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office noted that some states meet them with a generous interpretation of what counts as work — including “personal journaling,” “smoking cessation,” “weight loss promotion” and “helping a friend or relative with household tasks and errands.”
HHS noted that one of the states seeking more flexibility is Nevada, which has a Republican governor. But as Daily Caller blogger Mickey Kaus notes, Nevada proposed to exempt some recipients from work requirements for six months.
Why is it important to attach work mandates to welfare checks? One reason is that it weeds out people who are poor because they prefer not to put up with the demands of an employer. Weeding those out saves money.
Another is that it pushes recipients to do something that may be unappealing in the short run — take a low-wage job — but will serve their interests in the long run. Even in today’s slow economy, notes Mead, only 12 percent of the nonworking poor say they can’t find a job.
Equally vital, a work requirement respects the sacrifices of those who pay the taxes to fund welfare programs. Most Americans don’t object to government aid for those unable to help themselves: children, the elderly and the disabled. But they resent subsidizing able-bodied adults without expecting something in return.
The 1996 law addressed that legitimate concern. It has been a great success in reducing welfare caseloads and moving poor mothers into the workforce.
We can hope that in revamping the regulations, Obama will make a good program better. But he could also make it worse.
Chapman is a Chicago Tribune columnist. He blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve—chapman.