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Washington Post’s Fact Checker: Upon review, Obama’s welfare reform does undermine the work requirement

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins

The Washington Post Fact Check columnist Glenn Kessler previously awarded “four Pinocchios” to the Mitt Romney campaign back in August for its ad claiming that President Obama had gutted welfare reform. Today the Post columnist revisits the subject … and discovers that, yes, maybe Obama did seriously weaken welfare reform after all. But, hey, that’s okay, because Kessler still stands by his original column.

The welfare controversy involves a memorandum the Obama administration’s Health and Human Service Department sent to the states back in July regarding the program’s work requirements: Here’s what Kessler said in his original  column on the welfare ad issue:

The text of the memorandum states that HHS “will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals” of the legislation. “States that fail to meet interim outcome targets will be required to develop an improvement plan and can face termination of the waiver project,” the memo added.

That column cites Heritage Foundation expert Robert Rector, who as a consultant co-authored the original 1996 legislation, as a critic saying the change weakens the law. It doesn’t seem to take Rector’s specific argument into account though. As I argued in a column yesterday, Rector’s critique should have at least demonstrated that the issue is a matter for open debate.

Instead Kessler scolded Romney for using “an extreme interpretation of what might happen under these rules” and awarded him the four Pinocchios.

“There is something fishy about the administration’s process on this memorandum, but that does not excuse the Romney campaign’s over-the-top ad,” Kessler said.

In the his column today, Kessler examines the issue again, this time from the angle of Bill Clinton’s statement during that Democratic convention that Obama’s change would actually increase the law’s work requirement. Kessler ultimately gives that claim two Pinocchios, arguing it is “not quite so simple as that.”

Hmm, well, Kessler didn’t give off the impression that he thought the issue was that complicated the first time around. This time he says he spent “some time digging into this (Clinton’s) statement” and “we can certainly say it is a very complex issue.” He explains:

Boiled down, one key difference between the two sides is whether one should focus on job search (conservative) or job training (liberal). There was little job training in the 1996 law, which put the main focus on getting people back to work.

The HHS memo listed as possible projects for waivers such ideas as “multi-year career pathways models for TANF recipients that combine learning and work.”

In other words, the changes allow the welfare recipients to not have a job if they are supposedly being trained for a job. The technical term for this is a “loophole” and it holds up Romney’s argument that the work requirement had been gutted.

States have an incentive to do this too, since placing the recipients in training technically removes them from the pool of people looking for work. This in turn makes it look as though the state is doing better in putting the recipients to work even if those individuals aren’t actually getting jobs, as Kessler himself notes.

He also says:

The Romney welfare ad took an extreme interpretation of the memo, claiming that Obama has already taken action to “drop work requirements.” The ad further states that “under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

That’s not apparent in the memo — at least not yet, since no waivers have been granted. But interestingly the claim made by Clinton — that the “administration agreed to give waivers to those governors and others only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent” — is not in the memo either.

Instead, that assertion appears in a letter written by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) after Republicans erupted at HHS’s issuance of the memo. She wrote:

“Specifically, governors must commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance. States must also demonstrate clear progress toward that goal no later than one year after their programs take effect. If they fail, their waiver will be rescinded.”The original HHS memo makes no mention of such requirements. Indeed, it is significantly weaker. The memo does not cite a one year time limit to demonstrate progress, for instance. (Emphasis added.)

Instead, the memo suggests that states have at least several opportunities to prove that their plan works: “States that fail to meet interim targets will be required to develop improvement plans. Repeated failure to meet performance benchmarks may lead to the termination of the waiver demonstration pilot.”

So the “more work” part only came about after the change became controversial, making it classic bureaucratic butt-covering. In any event, it isn’t included in the document that matters here: The original HHS memo.

Meanwhile, as Kessler notes, the memo explicitly says “repeated failure” in the waiver programs may lead – only “may,” mind you – result in the program getting yanked. There is a five year limit on these programs, but that too can be extended if there are “special circumstances.”

Rector’s argument is that all this bureaucratic language is simply a way to give the states wiggle room to undo the requirements without having to explicitly say so. Kessler’s column today edges in that direction, noting the various ways in which the requirement has been weakened.

The Fact Check column concludes:

We wavered on the number of Pinocchios in this instance. But we finally settled on two, mainly because Clinton, in his facile way, made this intense debate appear as if it is mainly a dispute about moving “folks from welfare to work.” It is not quite so simple as that, and neither is it clear yet that the net result is that more people on welfare will end up working.

At the same time, he says: “We stand by our earlier ruling on Romney’s welfare ad.” Ok, but even if you think it was an extreme interpretation of the change, as Kessler’s own column today documents, it is not an outrageous or unfair one. How then can he not revisit the earlier ruling?

Incidentally, Kessler’s column today refers to his original column on this subject as being from July. It is in fact dated August. Kessler apparently has a hard citing his own columns correctly.

CORRECTION: This post originally said Rector had been a congressional staffer at the time the 1996 law was passed. That is incorrect. He was a consultant to Hill staff at the time.

 

 

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