The Magazine

Obama’s Palace Guard

How media fact checkers made themselves of service to the president in the welfare reform debate

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Despite getting a pass from the mainstream media, the Department of Health and Human Services must have worried that the argument they were undermining welfare reform was legitimate and would gain traction. So on July 18, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sent a letter to Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means committee, clarifying that states seeking waivers would have to “commit that their proposals will move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work.” This new requirement was not in the memo announcing the waivers, and could be reversed at the discretion of HHS.

In early August, the Romney campaign started running ads that echoed Rector’s critique, hitting the Obama administration for “gutting” welfare reform. Now that the issue was an electoral football, the media suddenly became interested. The issue was pounced on by “fact checkers” whose pride in sorting out such complex policy issues often exceeds their ability to do so. On August 7, PolitiFact gave the Romney ad its worst rating: “Pants on Fire!” The only direct source quoted in the piece was an expert at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. PolitiFact didn’t mention that HHS had felt the need to try to tighten up waiver requirements in a separate letter after the fact, let alone express suspicion about why it might have done so.

PolitiFact did link to Rector’s blog post—but only to dismiss him. “Robert Rector, a welfare expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it could ultimately allow ‘state bureaucrats’ to count activities that aren’t really work. We should point out that those concerns are at odds with the policy’s stated goal of encouraging employment.” In other words, PolitiFact said his concerns should be dismissed for no other reason than they are at odds with the Obama administration’s spin. PolitiFact didn’t even address the fact that Rector—who’s quoted in Romney’s ad—was the source of the charge the Obama administration is gutting welfare reform or that he helped write the welfare reform law. (They did reference an article Rector wrote for National Review Online and concluded that he made “a noteworthy point” when he argued that the Obama administration doesn’t have the legal authority to waive the work requirements.)

Rather than engage in any critical discussion about the issue, PolitiFact regurgitated the HHS memo for the sole purpose of making the waivers sound benign. “The memo outlined, using the jargon of a federal bureaucracy, the kinds of waivers that would be considered. It suggested projects that ‘improve collaboration with the workforce and/or post-secondary education systems’ and ‘demonstrate strategies for more effectively serving individuals with disabilities,’ to give two examples.”

Let’s take that last example of accommodating workers with disabilities—please. It’s a classic bit of bureaucratic misdirection intended to make exemptions that undercut welfare work requirements sound reasonable. “There’s no one on TANF that’s disabled. If you’re disabled, you’re on another program called Supplemental Security Income,” Rector tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD. “In TANF, you should be able to work—but what the left likes to do is to create a nebulous category of TANF recipients who are disabled with these very cloudy, fuzzy definitions, and then the state can chunk essentially an unlimited part of its [welfare] population into an exempt category. That has twofold consequences—now the state doesn’t have to do anything [to steer the exempted recipients into the workforce], but it can still maintain it has a high participation rate [in workfare programs]. If you have a 30 percent participation rate, and you exempt half the caseload, all of a sudden you can make it look like your participation rate went up.”

Which brings us to the other fantastical claim about HHS’s waivers—the idea cited by Bill Clinton that they would require more recipients to get jobs. Rector calls the idea that states would have to show a “20 percent increase in employment exits” the “oldest con game in welfare statistics. The number of employment exits [from welfare] is simply a function of the size of the caseload.” In other words, if employment exits from welfare programs are increasing, that’s usually an indication that the number of people on welfare is going up. There’s a large body of data confirming this correlation, and the reverse is also true. It was a sign of welfare reform’s success when the number of employment exits in the TANF program actually dropped. Over time, fewer people were exiting welfare because the size of America’s welfare rolls had dwindled greatly. States that wanted to have work requirements waived would understand Sebelius’s metric as an incentive to increase their welfare rolls.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers