WASHINGTON – Welfare is causing a ruckus in the presidential campaign. But the program is a shadow of its old self from the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan used the image of welfare queens to assail government poverty programs promoted by liberals.
Nowadays, government cash assistance to the poor is mainly conditioned on work. And the Obama administration waivers excoriated by Mitt Romney this week as gutting welfare reform are unlikely to reverse that basic policy, as even some architects of work requirements acknowledge.
If Washington were different and ... people could sit down and reason together, its not impossible to think that Republicans and Democrats would come to an agreement on waivers similar to what the administration is proposing, said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families.
As a senior House GOP aide in the 1990s, Haskins helped write the original welfare-to-work legislation.
The Obama administration says it wants to waive not work requirements but instead primarily federal administrative rules, including some that tie up state caseworkers who could be serving clients.
The 1996 welfare reform law, a pillar of social policy for conservatives, replaced a federal entitlement with grants to the states, while putting a time limit on how long families can get aid and requiring recipients to eventually go to work.
Welfare caseloads had declined for years before the recession, and there are only about 2 million families on whats now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF for short.
Its dwarfed by the Earned Income Tax Credit, the governments main anti-poverty program, which supplements the earnings of low-income families through the tax system and helps nearly 27 million households.
Haskins said the Obama administration was wrong to roll out its waiver plan without getting the advice and consent of congressional Republicans. But he added, There is merit to what the administration is proposing, and I dont see how you can get to the conclusion that the waiver provision undermines welfare reform and it eliminates the work requirement.
Its not a blanket waiver because states would have to apply one at time for exemptions from certain requirements of the welfare-to-work law. And states must show that their plans would move at least 20 percent more people to work.
Moreover, with or without waivers, theres a cap on the total amount of federal money available to states for welfare – about $17 billion – so it would not make much financial sense for a state to waste any of those dollars.
Such details seemed to have no place on the campaign trail.
A Romney ad Tuesday that accused Obama of quietly unraveling the work requirements was quickly slammed by the White House as dishonest. The debate took a further spin when former President Bill Clinton, the Democrat who signed the bipartisan welfare changes into law, came to Obamas defense.
Then Wednesday morning came the counterpunch from the Republican National Committee, which put former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a conference call with reporters. As Clintons GOP counterpart during the 1990s welfare debate, Gingrich had high praise for the former president while heaping disdain on Obama, whom he dubbed the anti-Clinton.
Gingrich suggested the waiver program is illegal because it would allow Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to relax some restrictions spelled out in a section of the law that Republicans contend is protected from such waivers.
Sebelius says a legal opinion from department attorneys says waivers are allowed as a test of whether state experiments would improve the program. Gingrich said thats exactly what youd expect to hear from liberals trying to undermine welfare reform by stealth.
Congressional Republicans are pursuing legislation that would block the waivers, but its unlikely to advance beyond the GOP-dominated House.