In The News
Fear of ‘welfare’ tests so well that Romney can’t resist lying in ads
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted August 28, 2012
When Health and Human Services executed a presidential executive order allowing flexibility waivers in implementing TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), the decision was roundly applauded by leaders in both parties (outside D.C. of course). The waivers allow states innovation and best practices in getting needy citizens back into the workforce, recognizing menial work alone isn't enough and should be married to training and community development - especially since the waiver rules demand a state increases jobs 20% for recipients.
So it came as a considerable blow to congeniality as well as common sense when Mitt Romney falsely attacked the waiver concept as eliminating work requirements in TANF even though they were deepened.
He launched a major ad and speech campaign demeaning "yet another" Obama failure to create jobs. Every major news source left and right condemned the ad as false and explained the real purpose of the waivers, but the ad campaign has not merely continued from the Romney camp, it has increased. Of course, it doesn’t use the term TANF. The ads use the term welfare.
Romney even summoned to FOX News such surrogates as the previous media master of Romney derision, Newt Gingrich. His vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan (R-Wall Street though some think he is from Wisconsin), has gone along with the false attack on the waivers.
During the Republican convention, Romney dodged by changing the subject, a familiar method – he suggested the waivers were politically motivated without admitting he had lied about them. He said Obama’s only reasons to support state wavers was to excite his political base – a not so subtle implication that only people in need of assistance made up Obama’s camp. He didn’t even have to say “black people” to get across the hidden meaning.
It's become painfully standard in these partisan extremes to belittle every presidential maneuver as a nasty un-American jobs killer. But this idea? Waivers that when Romney was Massachusetts governor he also sought?
What's going on here is a calculation by GOP advertising gurus that the mere word "welfare" strikes panic in the public heart, fear that the government is coming to "get my money," as one Tea Party leader put it on FOX News.
The use of the ad increased when it tested well among white women in the “undecided” category. In these hard times, they leaped at the suggestion that Obama wanted to eliminate the work requirement while he actually increased the job creation component, that he wanted “welfare” to pass out government money to “his people.” Such is the power of conjuring up an image of lazy not needy citizens. Did those who warmed to this lie see skin color as well as laziness? You decide.
Wherever that view comes from it has become ingrained in the American psyche, though the Bible teaches it the other way around, as in feed the poor, help the sick. Now if you really want to find people relying on government handouts to line their pockets, whisper “corporations are people, my friends,” as Romney did, since while the old welfare system is dead, "corporate welfare" is thriving in a thicket of tax code loopholes, the wealthy’s equivalent of a hammock.
Or have you fallen for the right-wing canard that "welfare" for the average person still exists? Except for the rich who can play the tax system, welfare in the form of meager assistance stopped when "welfare to work" became the law 16 years ago. And all the waivers did was to increase flexibility on how that work goal is achieved.
That old welfare system needed tweaks. You could find people dodging its intentions, just as you can find business leaders exploiting the tax code. But let’s not pretend the old welfare system didn’t largely work no more than pretending that all profit is evil. Again and again, it helped people back onto their feet, providing the temporary avenue to full productivity.
Look no further than the one-time welfare beneficiary who wrote a latter of applause for the waivers to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
That was Gwen Moore, Milwaukee's representative in the US House. She was off the need for government aid long before the "welfare to work" legislation, but even then she warned that it was a change predicated on a falsehood – the belief that there would be ample even unlimited employment opportunities for people in distress to get family-supporting jobs.
Moore was right. It's clear today the private sector economy failed to cooperate. So in effect the new welfare-work requirements forced many off welfare without providing them the jobs required under the new rules. It limited them to a no-jobs world without help, or to bad jobs in a shrinking market, or manufactured jobs that wouldn’t last, and it forced them to stay stuck in a lack of education and lousy living circumstances.
Some simply went underground to find a way to survive. Others have struggled through the rules facing an increasingly hardening political opposition calling everything from the GI bill to food stamps "welfare."
And that's become the key to the right-wing attack and the reason why Romney still spends advertising money on a lie – the hatred he senses for the word "welfare" whatever the reality. Of late the evil word “welfare” has been synchronized with attacks on affordable health care -- calling Obamacare "free health care for those who don't want to work." It's an attitude that has actually been planted as a question at public forums, startling candidates who confess that they have only run across people who want to work, albeit for decent wage and benefits.
That response may be common sense, but it faces skeptics married to the long disproven Reagan political saw of "welfare queens" driving Cadillacs. Or exaggerated stories about young women having babies not because of rape or passion but because they so adore having to scratch out an existence on government handouts.
The extremists are now doing the same with "food stamps" though most recipients are not minorities, just families looking for breaks –- many are veterans, others are professionals struggling through a poor economy and most are actually white. The knee-jerk hatred of mythical free riders ignores the basic American experience with welfare -- that it grows when it is needed and subsides when people can indeed take care of themselves. It is this misguided view of "rugged individualism" that simply gets in the way of true rugged individuals.
Perhaps it stems from people who think the worst of people in trouble or in bad health. But this failure to recognize the many roads to getting jobs hinders rather than helps, which is why the TANF waivers are welcome when carefully monitored and measured.
Welfare in reality was a very arduous, demeaning and parsimonious bridge for people to work their way back into society. Welfare to work succeeded the old system but was not an automatic bridge into productive society -- it didn't provide jobs and it set up self-defeating barriers to find better work, bringing demands often from conservatives for states to make changes in the Clinton era law.
That brings us back to the letter from Moore, who still remembers what it was like to poor, abused, a troubled young mother struggling to improve. How high Moore rose may not be typical, nor alas is her always positive attitude of never complaining or acting the victim. But what is typical is how public assistance was her bridge to productivity. It helped her graduate from Marquette University, support a family and then use public service to pay back the community in many ways.
"I am very aware of the successes and failures of this critical safety net," she wrote Sebelius. "I have been outspoken regarding my concerns about the TANF program, which shifted the focus of welfare to a series of rules and restrictions, rather than a focus on effective job preparation and placement, though that was one of its purported goals.
"TANF has never taken into consideration education and training to the extent they are necessary in helping recipients gain meaningful employment" - something Moore knows intimately about. "I am pleased that your waiver program could allow states” to do that.
Having lived the life, Moore clearly understands better than Romney ever did the real value of assistance programs. But facts may not overcome the temptation of promoting the lie – not when your expensive advertising hired hands tell you the lie is working.