Is Romney’s Welfare Ad Deceptive?

Romney's new ad on a ruling issued by HHS on welfare-to-work requirements doesn't pass the smell test.

Mitt Romney is taking political fire for an ad attacking the President for a decision announced several weeks ago by the Department of Health and Human Services regarding work requirements for welfare recipients under the welfare reform act passed back in 1996. Many on the right, starting with Rush Limbaugh apparently, have been spreading the claim that the Administration has essentially voided the work requirements for welfare completely. When I first looked into the details of the decision, that claim didn’t seem credible, but I didn’t write about the matter mostly because it wasn’t getting much coverage to begin with outside the usual conservative circles. That all changed yesterday, though, when the Romney campaign unveiled a new ad campaign hitting the Obama Administration on the issue:

Seven years ago, Mitt Romney joined other governors to urge the federal government to grant “increased waiver authority” to states to experiment with implementation of the federal welfare-to-work program.

But as he runs for president, Mr. Romney and his Republican allies are now accusing President Obama of “gutting” the welfare program by saying it will consider waivers to states.

On Tuesday, Mr. Romney elevated that argument to a new level, releasing a new attack ad accusing Mr. Obama of quietly announcing “a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.”

“Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check,” the ad says.

Mr. Romney’s campaign bases that accusation on concerns expressed by conservatives who say they fear new waivers for states could be used to undermine the federal rules that were overhauled in 1996 to require welfare recipients to work or receive training.

An assessment of Mr. Obama’s waiver change by the Heritage Foundationdescribes it as a “trick to get around work requirements.”

“The new welfare dictate issued by the Obama administration clearly guts the law,” the Heritage Foundation concluded. “The administration tramples on the actual legislation passed by Congress and seeks to impose its own policy choices — a pattern that has become all too common in this administration.”

In a memorandum released Tuesday, Lanhee Chen, Mr. Romney’s policy director, writes that Mr. Obama’s willingness to grant waivers to states reflects a desire to do away with work requirements that were central to the reforms of the mid-1990s.

“This policy change undermines the very premise of welfare reform,” Mr. Chen writes. “It is an insult to Americans on welfare who are looking for an opportunity to build better lives for themselves. And it is a kick in the gut to the millions of hard-working middle-class taxpayers struggling in today’s economy.”

Here’s the ad itself:

The Obama campaign struck back soon after the ad went public by accusing the Romney campaign of misrepresenting the facts and trying to change the subject, and Bill Clinton issued a statement saying pretty much the same thing:

Former President Clinton issued a statement late Tuesday night denouncing a new ad from the Romney campaign that accuses President Obama of “gutting” the bipartisan welfare reforms enacted during his administration.

“We need a bipartisan consensus to continue to help people move from welfare to work even during these hard times, not more misleading campaign ads,” Clinton said in the statement.

“The recently announced waiver policy was originally requested by the Republican governors of Utah and Nevada to achieve more flexibility in designing programs more likely to work in this challenging environment,” Clinton said. “The Administration has taken important steps to ensure that the work requirement is retained and that waivers will be granted only if a state can demonstrate that more people will be moved into work under its new approach.”

Clinton went on to blast the ad as “especially disappointing” because Romney requested welfare waivers as a governor of Massachusetts in 1995.

Despite these push backs, the Romney campaign continued the welfare theme in candidate appearances today, and Newt Gingirch came on board to assist in the attack on the President. Not all Republicans are backing Romney on this one, though. Ron Haskins, who was a staff attorney for the House Ways and Means Committee in the 1990s and was heavily involved in drafting the 1996 law, accused the Romney campaign of completely misrepresenting the nature of the waivers granted under the law.

Politifact, which yesterday sided with Romney over the Harry Reid tax claims, rates the ad’s claims as “Pants on Fire” false:

Romney’s ad says, “Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

That’s a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs — HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.

The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: “They just send you your welfare check.” The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is “designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”

The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!

Glenn Kessler gives Romney “Four Pinocchios” but also chides the Obama campaign for claiming that Romney had requested similar waivers when he was Governor of Massachusetts when there is little evidence that this is the case.  CBS News’s AdWatch joins in the evaluation and points out that the entire case for the argument that the Romney ad makes depends on a rather odd assumption:

The ad released by Romney’s campaign paints Obama as attempting to gut the work requirements that have played such a critical factor trimming the welfare rolls. It echoes conservatives’ worst fears that a July 12 letter from the Obama administration to the states amounts to an end-run around the program’s work requirements.

But that letter does not unilaterally repeal or waive the law. Instead, it gives states the chance to make changes to their welfare programs and still be counted as meeting work participation requirements. It’s a leap to assume that governors and legislators will seek to return to “plain old welfare” and that the Obama administration will give them the go-ahead.


The ad also ignores that governors from both parties have called for more flexibility in determining what constitutes allowable work activities under the law. For example, in August 2011, the state of Utah called for waivers that expanded the definition of countable work activities.

“It is the narrow definitions of what counts and the burdensome documentation and verification processes that are not helpful,” the Utah letter said.

Essentially in order to believe the Romney campaign here you’d have to believe that every Governor who is going to take advantage of the waiver authority granted here is going to do it to eliminate the work requirement completely, and that HHS is going to approve that proposed change. Considering that many of the Governor’s who have been asking for an increase in waiver authority are Republicans, it seems entirely unlikely. Indeed, given the continued strong public support for the 1996 reforms, it seems rather unlikely that any Governor, Republican or Democrat, would try to do make this kind of wholesale change to welfare programs. Finally, considering the strain such changes would put on state budgets, it seems rather absurd that anyone would consider it at this time.

So yes, it does some pretty clear that the Romney campaign is engaging in some rather unfair exaggeration and assumptions here. The HHS letter does not ‘end welfare as we know it,’ to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton. It gives states greater flexibility in administering the program which, in an era of high unemployment, seems like a fairly logical thing to do. After all, with the national unemployment rate at 8.3% and broader unemployment at 15%, it’s tough for anyone to find a job, least of all of welfare recipient who likely doesn’t have many skills to begin with. Welfare to work is a still the rule, though, and Romney is being dishonest in claiming otherwise.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Politicians, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. JeffC says:

    there are no 407 waivers allowed by the law … none, nada, zip …

    The govenors letter was asking for a CHANGE to the law to allow for 407 waivers (since the law explicitly didn’t allow them)

    yes, the ad assumes liberal govenors will try to reduce the work requirements … isn’t that what they have been trying to do for decades ?

  2. Clanton says:

    The government certainly should be trying to reform these welfare programs. There is so much fraud and cheating. Yearly audits, reviews, and changes would help. Maybe they should just scrap the whole thing and start over. Several months ago, the government was actually running advertising trying to get more people to sign up for food stamps. It should be the opposite. It used to be “ask what you can do for your country.” Now it is “here’s another handout”.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    So yes, it does some pretty clear that the Romney campaign is engaging in some rather unfair exaggeration and assumptions here. The HHS letter does not ‘end welfare as we know it,’ to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton.

    That sounds reasonable, but it doesn’t sound like a lie. I think people will ultimately come to their own conclusions about this, for the most part somewhere in between what Romney and Obama would want to be believed. That usually doesn’t happen when politicians pander to hearsay, innuendo and secret knowledge.

    It gives states greater flexibility in administering the program which, in an era of high unemployment, seems like a fairly logical thing to do. After all, with the national unemployment rate at 8.3% and broader unemployment at 15%, it’s tough for anyone to find a job, least of all of welfare recipient who likely doesn’t have many skills to begin with.

    The policy does not limits itself to temporal conditions as far as I have seen.

  4. Stan says:

    @Clanton: If you’re poor enough to qualify for food assistance, you ought to get it. Don’t the poor suffer enough as it is?

  5. michael reynolds says:

    The ad has nothing to do with welfare. And it’s not a question of whether it’s accurate.

    This is what the ad is saying: “That ni**er president is giving welfare to other ni**ers while you white males can’t get a job.”

    That’s what the ad is about, so questions of accuracy are entirely beside the point.

  6. john personna says:

    As I said yesterday, if you are going to have surrogates go after Reid for “lying” (really only not naming sources, you should try not to lie that week. It kind of ruins the effect.

    This is a straight up lie by the candidate.

    This is not some schmo congressman.

  7. Stonetools says:

    So another dishonest Romney ad. I guess Doug must be really happy with the world Karl Rove and Citizens United has made.

  8. David M says:

    @Stan: What country are you from? Here in ‘murica, if we could just let the GOP make the lives of the poor worse, everything will magically get better.

  9. john personna says:

    @PD Shaw:

    If it was not for the flip that might be credible.

    The late claim “oh, my request for waivers was totally different” is also not credible.

    If you believe that, you will believe anything the Etch-A-Scetch says today, tomorrow, ad infinitum.

  10. David M says:

    And I almost forgot to check the Mitt R(money) accuracy index.

    Basic template: Is Romney’s [Issue Here] Ad Deceptive?
    Answer: Yes

    This ought to make things easier in the future.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    @JeffC:” there are no 407 waivers allowed by the law … none, nada, zip …”

    That is my understanding as well. Link I personally think that’s the bigger issue (I really don’t care about the policy either way, particularly if it does turn out to be limited to the current recessionary economy), and points to how dysfunctional a second term is going to be.

  12. rudderpedals says:

    This is where the cadillac lady drives by to pick up her T-Bone toting young buck.

  13. anjin-san says:

    With the Romney campaign stalling, and his electoral support trending in the wrong direction, expect a lot more of this kind of BS.

  14. llama says:

    I wonder if the Romney campaign should be “condemned”? That word, however, is probably only reserved for Democrats.

  15. sam says:

    @PD Shaw:

    @JeffC:” there are no 407 waivers allowed by the law … none, nada, zip …”

    That is my understanding as well.

    Well, how do you and Jeff read this, then, PD?

    Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Information Memorandum

    Specifically this part:

    Section 1115 of the Social Security Act provides authority for the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to consider and approve experimental, pilot, or demonstration projects which, in the Secretary’s judgment, are likely to assist in promoting the objectives of Title IV-A. Section 1115 allows for waiver of compliance with section 402 of the Social Security Act to the extent and for the period necessary to enable a state to carry out an approved project. The statute also provides authority for costs of such projects which would not otherwise be an allowable use of funds under Part A of Title IV to be regarded as an allowable use of funds, to the extent and for the period approved.

    As specified in statute, the purpose of Part A is to increase the flexibility of states in operating a program designed to: (1) provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives; (2) end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; (3) prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and (4) encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

    HHS is encouraging states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF, particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment. Therefore, HHS is issuing this information memorandum to notify states of the Secretary’s willingness to exercise her waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families…

    While the TANF work participation requirements are contained in section 407, section 402(a)(1)(A)(iii) requires that the state plan “[e]nsure that parents and caretakers receiving assistance under the program engage in work activities in accordance with section 407.” Thus, HHS has authority to waive compliance with this 402 requirement and authorize a state to test approaches and methods other than those set forth in section 407, including definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures, and the calculation of participation rates. As described below, however, 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 TANF.

    As I read it, the 407 work goals are not waived. The states must still work to achieve those goals, only they are now free to fashion programs more in accordance with local circumstances, and are not tied to the “approaches and methods” set forth in section 407. The states must still achieve the goals, though, or the waiver is lifted.

    Isn’t this the kind of thing conservatives have been clamoring for? Local control and so on?

  16. C. Clavin says:

    Good for you Doug…you noticed your candidate is a liar…soon you will notice it’s pathological.

  17. sam says:

    And btw, I think the letter Jeff is referring to is the one Gov. Romney and the other Republican governors signed. The letter contains this:

    State Flexibility

    The Senate bill provides states with the flexibility to manage their TANF programs and effectively serve low-income populations. Increased waiver authority, allowable work activities, availability of partial work credit, and the ability to coordinate state programs are all important aspects of moving recipients from welfare to work. [Source]

    The listed are state as desiderata of the final legislation the governors were asking for. Note the desire for increased waiver authority. Isn’t this what has been granted?

  18. PD Shaw says:

    @sam: I’m not a conservative and I linked to the analysis.

  19. sam says:

    Well, how do you read the material I cited above re the 407 requirements? I read your comment as agreeing with the Heritage analysis. If you disagree with them, my apologies for thinking otherwise.

  20. C. Clavin says:

    Has anyone else noticed Romney getting killed by Republicans for bragging about Romneycare???
    How does your biggest achievement become an unforced error?
    This is cracking me up.

  21. john personna says:

    @C. Clavin:

    There are moderate Republicans who wish Mitt could reverse and be moderate Mass Mitt but I think it is far too late. His right wing (base) will demand he stay dug in, where he is, as the new born anti-Mitt.

  22. C. Clavin says:

    @ JP…
    You are right…Romney’s base…and Obama…won’t ever let him pivot to the center.
    There is a lot about Conservatism I can embrace.
    But nothing about today’s Republican party.

  23. PD Shaw says:

    @sam: The President’s authority to waive requirements is in Section 115, which specifically lists several legal provisions that may be waived. Standard statutory interpretation theory states that when the legislature lists several specific items , it intends to exclude non-listed items, such as the work requirements in Section 407. Expressio unius est exclusio alterius.

    The President is arguing that while Section 407 is not listed, Section 402 is listed. Section 402 contains the State reporting requirements and references Section 407. I think the technical word for this argument is boot-strapping, and I don’t it would generally fly. Courts find lists very significant, which is why we have a Tenth Amendment, and why many statutes which contain lists also contain the phrase like “the following, but not limited to . . .”

    I’ve not read the Congressional Research Service report that purportedly states “Effectively, there are no TANF waivers,” but if it reaches the same conclusion, its pretty damning.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I agree about conservatism. I actually wish my choice was between conservative and liberal. It’s not, it;s between corporatist bigots and loons on the one side, and corporatist much on the other. I have to go with mush over loons but you know, that’s maybe not the best of choices.

  25. David M says:

    Surrogate fail by Gingrich: We don’t have any proof the Obama Administration has dropped the work requirements, but they might.

  26. sam says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I’ve not read the Congressional Research Service report that purportedly states “Effectively, there are no TANF waivers,” but if it reaches the same conclusion, its pretty damning.

    I’ve not been able to find that 2001 document. If you have a cite, I’d appreciate you posting it here. I see references to the report all over the web (on right-wing sites), but when you link follow, you’re taken back to the Heritage report in every case.

  27. mattb says:

    Anderson Cooper and Newt Gingrich FTW (via the Daily Dish)

    “We have no proof today, but I would say to you under Obama’s ideology it is absolutely true that he would be comfortable sending a lot of people checks for doing nothing. I believe that totally,”

    – Newt Gingrich, after repeatedly pressed by Anderson Cooper to admit that the claims made in Romney’s welfare ad are totally unsubstantiated. The whole interview is a remarkable bit of propaganda countered by a remarkable bit of journalism


  28. @michael reynolds:

    As I’ve said in the past, I might have voted for Mass Mitt. For that very reason the hard right can’t run him.

    He was too RINO, moderate. RIP.

  29. PD Shaw says:

    @sam: Five minutes of googling and I can’t find it either.

  30. @PD Shaw:

    For what it’s worth, I think the big picture has always looked bad for Romney and his claim.

    Everything I’ve seen shows the Obama administration trying to make the current law work smoothly. Example:

    Nowadays government cash assistance to the poor is mainly conditioned on work. And the Obama administration waivers excoriated by Mitt Romney as gutting welfare reform are unlikely to reverse that basic policy, as even some architects of work requirements acknowledge.

    “If Washington were different and … people could sit down and reason together, it’s not impossible to think that Republicans and Democrats would come to an agreement on waivers similar to what the administration is proposing,” said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families. As a senior House GOP aide in the 1990s, Haskins helped write the original welfare-to-work legislation.

    The Obama administration says it does not want to waive work requirements, but instead primarily federal administrative rules, including some that tie up state caseworkers who could be serving clients.

    Basically it is paranoia again. There must be a “secret” plan in everything, teh socialism.

  31. (In an up-is-down moment, reducing red tape is teh socialism.)

  32. Moosebreath says:

    Kevin Drum on Mitt’s astonishing level of falsehood.

  33. David M says:

    And it get’s better, Romney is now on record saying campaigns should take down inaccurate ads.

    That leads us to the next question. Does he not know his ads are more misleading than Obama’s, or does he not care?

  34. al-Ameda says:

    @David M:

    And it get’s better, Romney is now on record saying campaigns should take down inaccurate ads.

    I take that to mean that Romney is offering to drop out of the race.

    I look forward to the Santorum nomination.

  35. Clanton says:

    @michael reynolds: Several presidents have proposed reform that would consist of a sort of “expiration date” on programs and agencies. Every so often, there would be audits, studies, and recommendations. Some of these agencies have long outlived their original purpose. Some of these agencies exist without the knowledge of Congress: they were set up long ago, forgotten about, and continue to run like some perpetual motion machine. One idea would be to involve experienced business leaders with proven records of success: Starbucks, Disney, Warner Bros, Lowes, and several others. These people know how to deliver a product efficiently and with the consumer in mind. Another idea would be to privatize these services. Too often, government agencies are heavy laden with administration, regulations, and paper. The “Affordable Care” act will need billions just to get set up. The rules and regulations run over a thousand pages, written in “legal” language of course. Means testing and documentation for the welfare, medicare, food stamp, and other help programs must be a priority. The removal of waste and fraud, efficiency, and business practices should be the top priority. Billions will be saved and can be used to give the needy the help they need.