Steve Chapman
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."


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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