August 7, 2012; Source: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

Was welfare reform a good thing or bad thing—and why is welfare reform turning into a campaign issue between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney?

Remember that in 1996, under President Clinton, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was replaced by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, the breakthrough step of welfare reform. According to a new report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “(w)ith the TANF block grant in place, the cash assistance safety net for the nation’s poorest families with children has grown weaker, not stronger.” Under welfare reform, states can use their share of the $16.5 billion in TANF funds plus their own required “maintenance of effort” (MOE) dollars for a variety of program activities, including “assisting needy families so children can be cared for in their own homes or the homes of relatives; reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.”

Initially, states used their TANF moneys for increased child care for welfare families and for welfare-to-work training and job preparation, but as time passed, something else happened: “(S)tates redirected a substantial portion of their TANF and MOE finds to other purposes, with some funds being used to substitute for (or ‘supplant’) existing state spending and thereby help plug holes in state budgets or free up funds for purposes unrelated to low-income families or children,” CBPP notes. Counterintuitively, in response to the recession, “many states cut already-low TANF benefit amounts further, shortened TANF time limits, or took other actions to shrink caseloads or keep them from rising much in the face of mounting need.” The CBPP report contains much more to suggest that welfare reform, if it ever worked, isn’t working now and isn’t helping the burgeoning numbers of families it should during this persistent recession.

But don’t tell that to Mitt Romney and his supporters. The newest campaign charge launched at the Oval Office is that President Obama is “gutting” welfare reform. Romney and his allies say that the president is dropping work and job-training requirements for welfare. The administration contends that it has granted waivers to some states to experiment with “new ways of meeting the work requirements,” but the Romney campaign is portraying that as part of a subterfuge to turn back the clock and bring back “old welfare.”

The fact-checking program of the Tampa Bay Times awarded Romney’s charge the “pants on fire” rating, the bottom of the barrel for political truth-telling. PolitiFact examined the Department of Health and Human Services memo that sparked the Romney charges and found it was written in bureaucratic gobbledygook but does not support Romney’s charges one scintilla. The openness to innovative welfare program strategies may warrant a regulatory review, as suggested by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, but “gutting” welfare reform and returning to the days of AFDC is nowhere to be found in the HHS policy, except in the minds of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who joined Romney in the misleading characterization of the policy.

Romney claims that welfare reform has been an “unprecedented success.” The CBPP report doesn’t seem to support that. Since nonprofits work with TANF recipients all the time, what is your read on the president’s new TANF waivers and the success or failure of the current TANF trajectory?—Rick Cohen