You will recall that during the last election there was a big controversy over whether the Obama administration had acted to "gut" -- to use the Romney campaign's term -- the work requirements under welfare reform. The Obama administration denied it, and various self-appointed media fact checkers had his back. The gutting claim was a fiction, they said, relying for their evidence primarily on the administration's spin. The programs have simply been made more efficient, the White House argued.
If by "more efficient" the Obama team meant getting unprecedented numbers of people on the rolls and keeping them there longer by relaxing the old rules, then, yes, the administration's reforms have been a roaring success.
A lengthy story in Thursday's Wall Street Journal notes that the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps, now has 47.8 million people on the rolls, up from just 28.2 million in 2008. Although some growth in SNAP would be expected, given the financial crisis and the recession, the reality is that the program's rolls have grown each year without interruption, and continue to grow today. Spending on the program has more than doubled, up from $34.6 billion in 2008 to $74.6 billion.
This is partly due to the lower-wage jobs the Obama "recovery" is creating. But a more important reason is that the administration has relaxed the requirements for social welfare programs generally.
Administration officials gave states the ability to loosen some eligibility requirements under the 2009 stimulus bill. The original 1996 welfare reform law -- signed into law by that noted hater of the poor Bill Clinton -- had included a separate rule encouraging able-bodied adults without dependents to work by limiting the amount of time they could receive food stamps. President Obama suspended that rule when he signed his economic stimulus legislation into law. In some cases, this meant "waiving any policy that restricted the assets a family could obtain," the Journal noted.
"Please encourage your States to adopt [the looser rules] to improve SNAP operations in your States," Jessica Shahin, a top Agriculture Department official, wrote to other federal program overseers in 2009.
SNAP is not the same as the cash welfare programs debated during the 2012 election. That federal program now goes by the name Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and it too has swollen by 10 percent under the current administration, from about 3.8 million families in 2008 to 4.2 million today. And as Romney pointed out, the administration has encouraged states to relax the requirements there too.
The broader point here is that the administration has undone the carefully thought-out, heavily negotiated requirements of one the most successful pieces of social policy in modern times. The result is a resurgence in citizen dependency on government.
No doubt administration officials think they are being merciful to the working poor by easing the requirements. But there is no welfare program as effective as a job. Obama could do a lot more lasting good if he would place job creation ahead of purely ideological priorities that hinder it -- such as tax increases, carbon regulation, limitations on oil and gas production (including the failure to approve the Keystone pipeline promptly), and onerous Obamacare mandates on employers.
President Clinton's great achievement in social policy came along with a rare moment in Washington history, during which budget restraint, shrinking deficits and a major tax cut on investment were accompanied by a true economic recovery. Why can't Obama's administration simply follow in Clinton's footsteps?