"We know that work is essential for people to rise out of poverty," former Sen. Rick Santorum, who helped draft welfare reform as a congressman in the 1990s, said on Thursday. "We how hard it is to get people off the welfare rolls and into work. That's why we put [the requirements] there."
The crux of the problem, and the grain of truth to Romney's allegation, is that the states that want more flexibility, and the administration that wants to give it to them, are essentially seeking to give welfare benefits to more needy people. By doing so, they say, they can eventually put more people to work. And they're willing to be held accountable -- the states applying for waivers say they'll prove more people are getting into jobs this way or take a penalty.
The country's economic situation is starkly different than it was when welfare reform passed in 1996, yet fewer people than ever are getting welfare benefits, as Jordan Weissmann has described. To liberals -- including, perhaps, then-state Sen. Barack Obama, who opposed federal welfare reform at the time -- this is just what they feared welfare reform would do: make sorely needed government benefits less available to those who need them most.
Welfare reform reduced the number of people on welfare by kicking them off the rolls, not by getting them into jobs, CBPP's Schott says. "In the late '90s, the economy was strong, and many people leaving [welfare] were leaving for work," she said. "When the economy turned down in 2001 and 2002, unemployment rose and people lost jobs, but caseloads didn't rise back. Then, when the big recession came in December 2007, caseloads only rose a little bit." The upshot, she says: "More and more people have neither welfare nor work." They're just poor and on their own.
But to conservatives, the fact that fewer people are on welfare now proves that reform has worked. "This was a success," Santorum said. "Even today, welfare rolls, in spite of the recession and the pathetic recovery this administration has presided over -- still, welfare rolls are lower than they were in 1996."
Further, any attempt to get benefits to more people, however well-intentioned, will only end up hurting them by making them dependent on government. "The hard left has an unending desire to create a dependent America," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the charge for welfare reform. "There is a sense of noblesse oblige to take care of the poor by giving them money."
The political potency of the welfare debate is clear -- welfare reform was enormously popular, and despite Obama's initial opposition to the federal law, he campaigned for the presidency in 2008 on having co-sponsored Illinois' state legislation to implement it. "I passed laws moving people from welfare to work," Obama boasted in a 2008 campaign ad touting his "values straight from the Kansas heartland." It's not surprising that the Obama campaign -- backed up by former President Clinton, who signed welfare reform into law -- is fighting back hard, and with justification, against the distorted charge that the president wants to give welfare recipients a blank check.
But it's not much of a stretch to conclude that the waivers the administration is soliciting, if they come to pass, would result in more people getting welfare benefits. The question is whether that's a good thing, and where you stand on that depends on your politics.