TOPICS > Politics

Candidates Spar Over Welfare Reform on the Campaign Trail

August 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a new ad, the Romney campaign targets 'welfare-to-work' programs and inflexibility for state changes to federal programs. Judy Woodruff talks to Georgetown University's Peter Edelman and Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector about welfare reform and the criticisms and proposals coming out of the campaign trail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been many years, even decades, since poverty and, more specifically, welfare has been the center of attention on the national political stage.

But dueling claims from both presidential campaigns put those subjects in the political arena this week.

NARRATOR: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The ad began airing this week. It refers to a decision by the Obama administration last month to hear requests from two Republican governors, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Gary Herbert of Utah, for waivers or exceptions allowing state changes to federally funded welfare-to-work programs.

At a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, yesterday, Gov. Romney said allowing those changes would be a step in the wrong direction.

MITT ROMNEY (R): As a result of putting work together with welfare, the number of people on welfare was cut in half. Poverty was reduced. Five straight years, the level of poverty in this country came down. It is wrong to make any change that would make America more of a nation of government dependency. We must restore and I will restore work into welfare.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama campaign has hit back hard at the charges.

White House spokesman Jay Carney:

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: From a policy standpoint, let me say that this advertisement is categorically false and it is blatantly dishonest.

This administration’s policy will strengthen the program by giving states the opportunity to employ more effective ways to help people get off welfare and into a job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The 1996 law replaced a federal welfare entitlement program with grants to states. The centerpiece of the law, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF for short, puts a time limit on how long families can receive aid.

Most notably, it required most recipients to work or participate in job training programs. Carney argued that the waivers would force the states to meet the law’s work requirements.

JAY CARNEY: Under this policy, governors must commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people, more people from welfare to work.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Today, we are ending welfare as we know it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former President Bill Clinton, who signed the law, called the Romney ad misleading and not true.

In a statement released Tuesday, he said: “The Romney ad is especially disappointing because, as governor of Massachusetts, he requested changes in the welfare reform laws that could have eliminated time limits altogether.”

The law has often been touted as a success, as the number of people receiving welfare has declined over the years. Since the start of the recession in 2007, requests for welfare benefits have lagged far behind requests for food stamps and unemployment benefits, even as the percentage of Americans living in poverty has increased.

We take a close look now at the state of poverty in America and debate the success of welfare reform with two people who have studied the issue closely.

Robert Rector is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He helped to craft the 1996 welfare reform legislation. And Peter Edelman is a professor of law at Georgetown University. He resigned from the Clinton administration in 1996 in protest of the reform plan. He has a new book out examining how to combat poverty in the U.S. titled “So Rich, So Poor.”

Gentlemen, we thank you both for being with us.

PETER EDELMAN, Georgetown University: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Peter Edelman, let me start with you.

This Romney campaign ad essentially saying that what the president has done is going to make Americans more dependent on the government. What do you make of the Romney charge.

PETER EDELMAN: Absolutely untrue, invented.

This is a guidance that will help people, that is designed to make it more flexible for the states to be able to help people get jobs. That’s what TANF is supposed to be about, is to help people get jobs. Republican governors asked for the help. Governor Romney himself asked for the help.

So, what has happened here is, to me, it’s — what’s bigger than a whopper? It’s a whopper.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Rector, how do you see what Governor Romney is charging?

ROBERT RECTOR, Heritage Foundation: Well, these are the work requirements that were put in the TANF law in 1996. I happened to have written most of these requirements.

And these were the motor that drove that law to reduce poverty and to reduce welfare dependence by requiring welfare recipients to work or prepare for work — or at least part of them — as a condition for receiving aid.

What the Obama administration has done is taken these and said, they’re gone. They are out of picture. They no longer have any meaning in law. And we’re going to replace them with something else. But you should trust us that we’re not planning to really alter the program.

Their action was completely illegal, and it violates and wipes out the entire core of reform.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Edelman, as I understand it, the White House is saying that — that is not what they have done. So, explain why what Mr. Rector is saying isn’t correct, if you believe it’s not.

PETER EDELMAN: It is not correct.

What going on here in terms of the Republican attack on these guidelines is pure politics. It’s election-year politics. This guidance from HHS says over and over again, repeatedly, that its aim is to improve employment outcomes — I’m reading from it — for needy families.

It’s to get more flexibility so there that there can be — make it easier to get people to get off of TANF, instead of having work requirements in specific conditions — situations where there’s a waiver and that it’s supervised by the federal government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In other words, giving — as I understand, it’s giving states more flexibility to figure out ways to get people to work.

ROBERT RECTOR: It’s allowing states to be exempted from the participation rates entirely. They say that they will waive or do away with all of Section 407. That’s the entire work requirement in the bill. Every aspect, every clause, every phrase is now invalid. It no longer is binding. It’s gone.

PETER EDELMAN: That’s not true.

ROBERT RECTOR: It’s absolutely true.

And they’re going to replace it with something that they will design unilaterally, with no input from Congress, and that will be something that will be far more lenient than the existing law. The left wing of the Democratic Party has opposed this law from the beginning.

Half the Democratic Party voted against it in ’96. They attempted to repeal it in 2002. They were unable. They have now used a bureaucratic tactic to wipe it out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were among those in the beginning, in fact, when you resigned from the Clinton administration, who believed that the law went too far, Peter Edelman.

But, on this particular point, why — how can you — how do you believe, based on what you see, that the requirement to work is still a part of…

PETER EDELMAN: It doesn’t wipe out anything.

It allows states to come in with very specific proposals to get to the desired end by a different route, by doing things that promise to be effective. And, indeed, they have to show that there will be — this is a letter that Secretary Sebelius wrote to Congressman Camp and Sen. Hatch, that they will aim to increase work placement by 20 percent, and the waivers would be rescinded.

These are demonstration, limited waivers. It’s not destroying anything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we clearly have two completely different perspectives on…

ROBERT RECTOR: Yes, except that Mr. Edelman opposed the law to begin with, and now he’s very happy with these changes, because in fact they eliminate the law.

PETER EDELMAN: I think the administration’s trying to do something constructive here.

The fact is that welfare is almost gone in this country; 26 states, now fewer than 20 percent of children in poor families are receiving welfare. In the state of Wyoming, there are less than 600 people in the entire state, 4 percent of poor children.

What we should be really talking about is the fact that we have blown a huge hole in the safety net for low-income people in our country. There’s six million people who have only food stamps, Judy, as their income. That’s what we should be talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s broaden this out and talk about the state of poverty in the country. What about the characterization…

ROBERT RECTOR: What we ought to talk about is talk about the total means-tested welfare system.

There are over 80 programs that the federal government spent — directs to targeted aid to poor Americans, 80 programs. This year, we spent $927 billion on those programs, not including Social Security and Medicare; 100 million individuals receive aid. It’s $9,000 per recipient.

Of those 80 programs, only three had work requirements. Now it’s two.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when you hear those big numbers, Peter Edelman, it doesn’t sound like a hole has been blown in the safety net. So how do you explain what — the statement you made?

PETER EDELMAN: Well, you have to take apart all the things that Mr. Rector has in his list. This is a story that he’s been trying to tell for a long time.

The point to understand is that the lowest-income people in this country have that — they have increased in number. We now have 20 million people who have incomes below half the poverty line. And that’s significantly because mothers and children have lost the help that they used to get from cash assistance and very, very often only have food stamps.

So, he can list hundreds of billions of dollars and call it welfare. The fact is that we have to — he’s including Head Start. He’s including all kinds of federal programs in his list. We need to focus on the particular thing that we’re trying do in each case. We want people working. That’s the way we’re going to end poverty.

But we also have to have a decent safety net. And at the bottom, we have blown a huge hole in that safety net.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that specific point?

ROBERT RECTOR: Ninety percent of the spending is cash, food, housing, medical care. It doesn’t include Social Security and Medicare.

If you just took the cash, food, and housing alone, that’s twice the amount of money needed to leave every individual above the poverty level. Now, Peter says, oh, they’re all poor. Well, that’s because none of this welfare spending is counted as income when we calculate poverty.

We are at a record level of spending. It’s scheduled to go up in future years. We’re spending five times as much money if it was converted in cash as what would be needed to eliminate all poverty in the United States, record high. Doesn’t sound like an eroding safety net to me.

PETER EDELMAN: I just — we will go family by family and see who we’re talking about and whether they qualify for benefits.

The food stamps are — we need to count those in the way we — and we don’t technically now. But that’s $6,000. That’s a third of the poverty line for a family that has no other income. So we will count that. We’re still talking about 14 million or 15 million people who have incomes below half the poverty line. And let me tell you, that is a terrible thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying those people — and you’re saying those people don’t have access to what they need in order to have the basic…

PETER EDELMAN: To have the basic — first of all, we always want to be helping people to find work, if work is available.

And what the administration has done here is in that direction. But we also need to have a decent safety net. And adding up a whole lot of different programs and saying therefore they must all be millionaires is just completely off the point. We need to look at what the conditions are and what the relevant help is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re talking about the poorest of the poor.

PETER EDELMAN: I am. And I’m also talking about those people who are poor and — just to put it on the table — the millions of people who are struggling with low-wage jobs.

And one of the reasons we have the spending that we have, it’s good public policy, is because we have so many people in low-wage jobs. And, therefore, we haven’t been able to lower poverty as much as we would want to.

ROBERT RECTOR: What happened to the $927 billion? Because that comes right out of the budget of the United States. It’s how much is spent on aid for low income and poor people, $927 billion.

Now, there are a hundred million recipients, a third of the U.S. population. That comes to $9,000 per recipient. Now, half of that is Medicaid. It’s medical care.

But it’s still — even if you leave that out, you’re talking about two or three times the amount of money to completely eliminate poverty in the United States. All the statistics that Peter is giving here about how people don’t income, it’s because of that $927 billion. Census only counts about $20 billion of it as income.

The missing welfare state in our poverty statistics is greater than the GDP of most nations in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, we are going to have to leave it there, clearly two very different perspectives, but we have learned something from listening to both of you. And we appreciate it.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Edelman and Robert Rector, thank you both.