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Fact-checkers are Often Partisans Posing as Neutralists

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Say you’re driving along on Friday morning, Aug. 31, and hear good ol’ National Public Radio telling us what’s what. Host Jeremy Hobson tells us that a Mitt Romney ad about welfare “has been called false by independent fact-checkers.” He then says correspondent Chris Farrell will “join us now for a little history lesson.”

“Good,” you might say: “I like history.”

Hobson says, “Chris, let’s start with the facts here.”

“Good,” you might say: “I like facts.”

Hobson then gets to the point: “So what about this charge that President Obama came in and weakened the work requirement for welfare?”

Your hands grip the steering wheel. Farrell says, “OK, let me make it really simple, Jeremy: The answer to that is no.” Farrell then quotes “all these political fact-checkers” who say Romney is wrong to charge that Barack Obama is weakening the work requirements for welfare.

The facts, according to Farrell: Obama is seeking “a better way to get welfare recipients into jobs” by having “the states acting as laboratories of innovation.” Farrell says Romney is criticizing that because “it’s politics at play. Not economics, and not facts.”

“Whew!” you might say. “I’m glad he cleared that up. Isn’t it great to have neutral fact-checkers who blow the whistle on partisan claims?”

Not exactly. The problem is that, The Fact Checker, and a host of others that hand out “Four Pinocchios” or “Pants on Fire” awards have very long noses and very burnt buttocks. They are partisans posing as neutralists.

For example, on this work/welfare question, here’s the big fact the fact-checkers missed: The Obama administration will let liberal state welfare officials water down work requirements as long as they game the system to show a pretend movement from welfare to work.

Fact-checkers concluded that Obama was not weakening the work requirement because states to gain flexibility would have to increase the number of people going from welfare to work by 20 percent. But states can do that by keeping better records of job attainment and by enticing more people to go onto welfare, which will boost the number of those leaving it. And if those two approaches don’t work, never fear: States do not need to meet the 20 percent standard, but merely “demonstrate clear progress toward the goal.”

Question: Even if states don’t show real improvement, isn’t it good for them anyway to have more flexibility in helping people get jobs? Sure, if that’s the goal, but you need to understand some history. Conservative welfare reformers in 1996 said a person on welfare should take any job, stick with it, demonstrate his capacity, and work his way up. Studies by groups like the Manpower Demonstration Research Project showed that “work works.” And lots of blue state social workers hated that approach.

Why? Many saw work demands as lacking compassion, since—they condescendingly thought—most people on welfare are unable to work. Many also thought high-functioning welfare recipients should go to school and take only jobs that right from the start paid a “living wage” and offered opportunities for creativity.

The new Obama regulations (TANF-ACF-IM-2010-03) are a blue wish come true. They say HHS will authorize states to set up (1) “career pathways models for TANF recipients that combine learning and work,” (2) “projects that test systematically extending the period in which vocational training or job search/readiness programs count toward participation rates,” and (3) “a comprehensive universal engagement system in lieu of certain participation rate requirements.”

Translation: Welfare recipients instead of working can take classes, exercise, go on errands, keep a journal, etc.—maybe even summarize their dreams about working. “Universal engagement” means that states can downgrade work requirements and keep getting federal dollars as long as everyone on welfare performs one of those activities for at least one hour each week. OK, fact-checkers: Who’s right? Yes, Obama did not order a gutting of work requirements, but his administration is urging liberal states to do that. Fact-check in the year 1170: Henry II did not order the murder of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, but merely suggested to his knights that they rid him of such irritation—and they did.

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