Welfare reform turned 16 years old this week and continues to grab headlines and garner controversy. Lately, assertions by Mitt Romney that President Obama is “gutting” welfare reform by removing the work requirement have fueled political debates and media fact-checking. As NPR reports, several fact-checking organizations have found Romney’s statements to be patently false, including a “four Pinocchios” rating from The Washington Post.
“A Mitt Romney TV ad claims the Obama administration has adopted ‘a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.’ The plan does neither of those things.”
“Work requirements are not simply being ‘dropped.’ States may now change the requirements — revising, adding or eliminating them — as part of a federally approved state-specific plan to increase job placement.”
“And it won’t ‘gut’ the 1996 law to ease the requirement. Benefits still won’t be paid beyond an allotted time, whether the recipient is working or not.”
Even Ron Haskins, a Republican architect and staunch supporter of welfare reform, contradicts Romney’s claims. He told NPR:
“There’s no plausible scenario under which it really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform.”
Yet, these rumors persist and many people believe them. What could be driving this? Political scientist Martin Gillens, who wrote Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, contends that race has something to do with it.
Gillens said his research shows that Americans think about welfare in a way that aligns pretty neatly with their perceptions about race. For example, whites tend to believe that most poor people are black. But actually, poor people are more likely to be white than black or Hispanic.
Gillens said it’s impossible to know whether the Romney campaign decided to play into a racial strategy or whether it’s an accident. But in a way, it doesn’t matter.
“Regardless of what their conscious motivations are, the impact of these kinds of attacks on welfare and, in particular, on the perceived lack of work ethic among welfare recipients, plays out racially and taps into Americans’ views of blacks and other racial stereotypes,” he said.
This, plus concern that Obama hopes to turn the United States into a “government-dependent society,” makes welfare reform the talk of the town during this year’s presidential race.
For more on welfare reform and race, see our Office Hours podcast with Joe Soss on “Poverty Governance” and our feature called “American Poverty Governance As It Is and As It Might Be.”