Fact Check: Does Obama Want to 'Gut' Welfare Reform?

To hear Mitt Romney tell it, President Obama wants to let lazy welfare recipients sit around collecting checks, with no strings attached.

The Romney campaign lobs that accusation in this TV ad, released today:

Is all this true? Romney's ad exaggerates the drama and scope of potential welfare waivers under Obama's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as the administration's stated intentions, while hitting on a real policy change: loosening the strings attached to welfare money and giving states more leeway to qualify for federal funds, amid an economy that has made it tougher for recipients to find jobs.

A fact-check:

CLAIM: "President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements"

TRUE? Currently, the claim appears to be an exaggeration, but that will depend on future action taken by HHS. At the very least, it contradicts some of the administration's stated intentions.

WHAT HAPPENED: In a July 12 memo and letter to states, HHS officials announced that secretary Kathleen Sebelius will use HHS's statutory authority to consider state waivers for welfare work requirements.

For more on Obama and welfare waivers, read this report from ABC's John Parkinson.

Some welfare background : These requirements are quotas, which states must meet to receive federal welfare dollars under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, pronounced "taniff"): certain percentages of enrolled households must meet "work activity" requirements, including work training, job searches, "job clubs" that offer job-search advice, and job searches with verified paperwork from employers where jobs were sought.

HHS announced that states can propose pilot programs, which can include changes to how qualified welfare recipients are counted. If HHS approves a state's program, it will grant a waiver from federal work-activity requirements. For instance, HHS suggests, states could propose "projects that demonstrate superior employment outcomes" if work-activity participation rate requirements are dropped and replaced by other measurements of "employment outcome."

Sebelius wrote in a July 18 letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that she will not approve any plans to weaken work requirements: "Our goal is to accelerate job placement by moving more Americans from welfare to work, and no policy which undercuts the goal and waters down work requirements will be considered or approved by the Department." States must demonstrate that their programs move 20 percent more people from welfare to work, compared to past state programs, Sebelius wrote.

Get more pure politics at ABC News.com/Politics and a lighter take on the news at OTUSNews.com

States must include benchmarks and targets, which HHS will approve. If states fail to meet them, HHS will require changes or revoke the waivers entirely.

Whether this means the administration has managed to "gut" the Clinton administration's 1996 welfare reforms will depend on the programs Sebelius approves. If a state proposes a total elimination of work-activity requirements, and Sebelius approves it, then a significant part of the '96 bill will have been "gutted" in that state - or at least wherever the pilot program applies. If a state proposes broadening the categories of "work activity," then the verb "gut" will ring hyperbolic.

CLAIM: "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."

TRUE? Possibly true in some cases, but another exaggeration.

WHY: In the July 12 memo/letter, HHS officials imply Sebelius is open to eliminating job-search and job-training requirements in some cases. But again, this applies only to HHS-approved pilot programs. Such programs do not typically apply to an entire state, just to certain counties or cities, according to welfare expert and University of Chicago Prof. Evelyn Brodkin, who is a Democrat but said through the university she has no professional connection to Obama.

That said, there is no evidence HHS wants to do away with measurements and requirements - just to move away from current work requirements under approved pilot programs. Even if HHS measures "negotiated employment outcomes in lieu of participation rate requirements," as the memo suggests, HHS will still judge pilot programs on their success/failure at placing poor people in jobs. If welfare recipients sit around collecting checks without looking for work, as Romney's ad suggests, such a program isn't likely to last.

Throughout the memo, HHS states its intention is to raise the number of welfare recipients finding work - and to measure states against that goal. Other suggestions include letting recipients undergo longer-term job training or education programs; programs that combine training and work; and letting states temporarily count employees in welfare-subsidized jobs against the a participation quota, even if those employees no longer receive welfare checks.

"The Secretary will not approve a waiver for an initiative that appears substantially likely to reduce access to assistance or employment for needy families," Office of Family Assistance Director Early S. Johnson wrote in the memo.

The Romney campaign's exaggeration is twofold: 1) This change is a request for pilot-program proposals - not a national welfare-policy plan, and 2) the ad implies that HHS will ignore recipients' efforts at finding jobs. In its memo, HHS repeatedly says it will measure outcomes and revoke waivers for programs that don't work, even if it does (as the Romney ad predicts) drop job-search and job-training requirements in some cases.

What seems more likely is that states will offer up alternative quota-counting methods, expansions of what defines a work activity, and experimental programs that let them temporarily circumvent federal requirements in certain areas-all loosening the restrictions on their federal money. That's a far cry from a nationwide obliteration of the strings attached to welfare money.

Again, to judge Romney's ad, we'll have to wait and see what Sebelius does and does not approve.


As the Obama campaign has pointed out, Romney signed a 2005 letter to Sen. Bill Frist (along with Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, etc.), when welfare programs were being reauthorized under Bush. As the governors lobbied Frist on the bill, they praised "state flexibility" (italics added):

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.

So it's not as if welfare "waiver authority" and changes to "allowable work activities" are facially radical. The memo/letter signify a loosening of work-activity requirements, the scope of which is yet to be determined. Those requirements were tightened under George W. Bush, according to Prof. Brodkin, who says welfare waivers have been used by Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush.

"Nobody used waivers more than Ronald Reagan. He used them to set up basically the first experiments with these kinds of work requirements," Brodkin said, noting that Reagan allowed states to place more restrictions on recipients, not fewer. "Presidents use these waivers all the time."