Romney repeats charge Obama is 'gutting' welfare reform. Is that a distortion?

At issue is whether the Obama administration's new waivers, allowing states to experiment with alternative work requirements, will undermine the historic welfare reform program. Independent fact checkers say, no.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to supporters during a campaign event at Central Campus High School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 8.

Mitt Romney on Wednesday doubled down on charges that President Obama plans on “gutting” welfare reform by easing work requirements for recipients.

In doing so, his campaign repeated assertions widely condemned by Democrats and independent fact-checkers as inaccurate. Is Mr. Romney unfairly misrepresenting the administration’s record in this area?

Romney’s claims are a “drastic distortion” of planned changes to the existing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, according to PolitiFact.com. The website gave the charges its lowest rating, “Pants on Fire."

First, a little background: The presidential campaign is suddenly mired in a swamp of dubious assertions, half-truths, and unfair conflations.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s statement that Mitt Romney may have paid no taxes for 10 years leads the way here. Senator Reid has sourced his information to an unnamed Bain Capital investor, but he has refused to provide any further evidence for this explosive charge, or to release any further tax information of his own.

On Tuesday, the pro-Obama "super PAC" Priorities USA Action released a harsh ad dealing with GST Steel. Purchased by Romney’s Bain Capital in 1993, the firm went bankrupt in 2001. In the ad, ex-GST worker Joe Soptic notes that he lost his health insurance as a result of the failure, and that his wife later died of cancer.

The ad makes no mention of the fact that Romney says he had left Bain two years prior to GST’s collapse, that Mr. Soptic’s wife had her main health insurance through her own employer, or that she passed away in 2006.

In this context, on Tuesday Romney went after the Obama administration on welfare, a hot-button issue of the 1980s.

Romney’s campaign released an ad titled “Right Choice” that opened with then-President Bill Clinton signing the landmark 1996 welfare reform act. The narrator notes that the historic bill “helped end welfare as we know it by requiring work for welfare."

It then continues by saying that on July 12 President Obama announced a plan to “gut welfare reform” by dropping work and job-training requirements. “They just send you your welfare check,” says the narrator.

White House spokesman Jay Carney blasted this charge, calling it “categorically false” and “blatantly dishonest," among other things. Fact checkers mostly agreed with this judgment of the spot.

What the Obama administration has actually done, noted PolitiFact.com, is to say that the Department of Health and Human Services will consider waivers allowing the states to try new ways of meeting the work requirements.

An example of a project that might qualify for a waiver includes an effort to “improve collaboration with the workforce and/or post-secondary education systems," notes an HHS memo. (Yes, as PolitiFact notes, that’s fairly vague bureaucratic language.)

Critics of the move, such as the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, say the real result of the change will be to undo work rules. And the Romney team wasn’t backing down on Wednesday, with spokeswoman Andrew Saul saying in a press release that “it took years for President Clinton and Republicans in Congress to pass historic welfare reforms – but it only took President Obama an instant to undo the legislation’s historic work requirements."

The administration’s defenders, meanwhile, say the real point of the attack is to revive the welfare-queen meme of the 1980s.

“The claim that Obama is quietly bringing back the old welfare system is perfectly designed to bring back the old politics of the 1980s, when Republicans constantly (and often successfully) sought to pit middle-class voters against the poor, while distracting attention from the vast welfare system supporting corporations and the wealthy,” wrote Ed Kilgore on the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog.

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