Checking Romney’s Claim that Obama Wants to ‘Gut Welfare Reform’

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In a new ad released Tuesday, Mitt Romney charges that the Obama Administration has returned to “plain old welfare” by dropping work requirements passed in 1996 under Bill Clinton. The ad focuses on a July 12 directive from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which informed states that it will issue waivers for those requirements if states can propose alternatives for helping poor Americans find jobs.  

As I’ve written before, Romney in 2005 signed a letter advocating for “increased waiver authority” and “allowable work activities” for the states. The ad doesn’t go into specifics about why Romney is now against similar waivers, but his official campaign website features an op-ed by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell from Monday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, which provides more detail.

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

McDonnell argues that welfare isn’t broken, and doesn’t need fixing. TANF has succeeded in three key ways, he writes: it has reduced caseloads, decreased the poverty rate among children, and increased the percentage of single mothers with jobs.  Let’s take a look at these three claims.

1. Caseloads have dramatically decreased, but mostly because TANF assistance programs serve a far smaller share of the poor than the previous program that President Clinton scrapped in 1996. The national TANF caseload declined 58% between 1995 and 2010, from 4.7 million to 2.0 million, but the number of families with children in poverty increased from 6.2 million to 7.3 million.

2. The U.S. child poverty rate has ranged between 15% and 23% over the past four decades.  It decreased markedly between1996 and 2000 (thanks as much to a booming economy as to TANF), but has since increased, reaching 21.6% by 2010, its highest point in 10 years. A May UNICEF study found that the U.S.’s child poverty rate is currently the second highest among 35 of the most economically advanced countries.

3. The percentage of single mothers with a job has increased, but this is largely a result of the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit under Clinton, not TANF.

So McDonnell is taking these numbers out of context.  One might expect Republicans to embrace changes to TANF, as the waivers make federal requirements more flexible–states being “laboratories of democracy” and all that.  But in an election year, the opportunity to criticize a political opponent is hard to pass up.

(PHOTOS: Political Pictures of the Week, July 27 – Aug. 3)