The Corner

The Dueling Welfare Ads

The Romney campaign has run two ads about Obama’s welfare policies. The charges: Obama has “quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements,” so that people can get welfare checks without having to work or train for a job; and Obama has a “long history of opposing work for welfare.” Liberals have been calling these ads dishonest and racist.

The Obama ad calls Romney’s charges “blatantly false,” citing the New York Times, and “just not true,” citing Bill Clinton. It claims that Obama is “not removing the bill’s work requirements at all,” citing (a liberal blogger for) the Washington Post. It even says that Obama is “getting states to move 20 percent more people from welfare to work.”

So who’s right? It depends on how much you trust this administration.

The welfare-reform law obligates states to make about 40 percent of welfare recipients either work, look for work, get on-the-job training, or take part in similar activities. The Obama administration has asserted, very dubiously, that it has the authority to waive that requirement. It says it will waive it only for states that would use the flexibility in larger plans to increase the total number of people working.

As I noted when I wrote about the administration’s announcement, Ron Haskins, who helped Republicans write the welfare-reform law in the first place, takes a charitable view of the waiver policy. On his view, states are much less inclined than they used to be to water down work requirements, and there are circumstances where the waiver could conceivably be helpful.

In Romney’s defense, however, the administration’s claimed legal authority is not contingent on the states’ implementing effective pro-work policies; Obama does indeed have a long history of opposing welfare reform; whether issuing waivers from work requirements amounts to “gutting” welfare reform seems like a pure matter of opinion; and the Obama administration would be doing exactly what it is doing if it wanted to take the first surreptitious steps to undermine the reforms Obama opposed.

The Obama administration seems to me to be within its rights to insist on its good intentions. The Romney campaign is within its to doubt them. Mainstream media fact-checkers, you will not be surprised to learn, have sided almost wholly with Obama.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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