Welfare Warfare, Fought in Shallow Waters

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Republican National Committee / YouTube

Stills from the Romney campaign's ad on welfare reform

This morning the Republican National Committee held a conference call with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum to continue the GOP assault on Barack Obama over welfare. Republicans and the Romney campaign are driving their charge that the Obama Administration is gutting the strict work requirements imposed by the 1996 welfare reform law, passed by the Gingrich-Dole Congress and signed by Bill Clinton.

The Romney campaign’s ad on this subject is—are you sitting down?—quite misleading. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check,” the ad asserts. But there is no Obama “plan,” just a willingness to entertain requests from states looking for some leeway to tinker with their federally funded welfare programs. Washington sends welfare money to states, giving them freedom to design their own programs so long as they meet certain specific requirements, including what welfare recipients need to do to demonstrate their efforts to get a job and limits on how long they can stay on the dole. A couple of states recently asked the Obama Administration for waivers from the law’s requirements, and the Administration said it would consider their proposals. That’s the “plan,” although many viewers of the ad will likely imagine that Obama has taken a red pen to the ’96 law and rewritten it to blast taxpayer money into every housing project in the country.

Are there plenty of Democrats who hated the original reform, blame it for contributing to–or at least failing to blunt–a spike in poverty, and who would love to gut what they consider to be punitive the work requirements? Yes. I doubt that Barack Obama is one of them, however—not least because he surely understands how dangerous the politics of welfare can be for his party. Welfare, which many white voters unfortunately hear as “handouts for lazy inner city blacks,” goes straight to the alienation of the white working class that runs back to the 1960s, desegregation, forced school busing, crime, and so on.

Still, welfare does involve some basic and crucial principles, including the inherent value of work, how to break a tragic cycle of poverty and dependency, and how to reduce that notorious driver of poverty and dysfunction, low-income single motherhood.

To his credit, Santorum–a prime author of the ’96 law–emphasized those cultural-behavioral questions, not the crude budget math and redistribution demagoguery that some welfare critics harp on. Still, he mostly repeated the ad’s exaggerations and talked almost as though Obama had invalidated the law. Santorum also refused to address a burning question for Obama’s critics, namely whether work requirements crafted in the tranquil mid-1990s make sense at the height of an epic employment crisis.

National media tends to focus on the Great Recession’s impact on white middle-class workers: Steel Belt assembly line grunts, office park middle managers, paralegals. That’s just a slice of the picture. The crisis is far more severe among low-educated black and Hispanic workers, who in some urban areas face unemployment rates approaching a stunning 25%. The principle of pushing people into work isn’t necessarily callous or spiteful. But work requirements get harder to defend when work is nearly impossible to find. Santorum simply wouldn’t address that conundrum. Neither has Romney—nor, really, has Obama. A meaningful campaign ought to.