Romney Claim on Obama Welfare Changes Doesn’t Hold Water

Mitt Romney’s campaign is doubling down on its claim that President Obama “gutted” the work requirement under the 1996 welfare reform law. A new ad released Monday is more specific about the claim than in the past.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters during campaign event at the Family Table Restaurant in Le Mars, Iowa on December 31st.
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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters during campaign event at the Family Table Restaurant in Le Mars, Iowa on December 31st.

“On July 12, President Obama quietly ended the work requirement, gutting welfare reform,” the ad says.

But on July 12, the Obama administration did nothing of the sort.

At issue is this "information memorandum" issued that day by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the subject “guidance concerning waiver and expenditure authority” under the program officially known as Temporary Assistance to Needy families or TANF. (Related Link: Romney Accuses Obama of Dismantling Welfare Reform.)

The memo came in response to inquiries by several states, including Utah, Nevada, California, Connecticut and Minnesota, about waiving some provisions of the law “to improve program effectiveness.”

CNBC Investigations Inc.
CNBC Investigations Inc.

“HHS is encouraging states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF, particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment,” the memo says. “Therefore, HHS is issuing this information memorandum to notify states of the Secretary’s willingness to exercise her waiver authority under section 1115 of the Social Security Act to allow states to test alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”

The Romney campaign appears to be focusing on a later passage in the memo that claims HHS has the authority to allow states to test alternatives — including “definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures, and the calculation of participation rates.” (Related Link: Romney Hurt by Democratic Attacks: Poll.)

But the next sentence says, “HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF.”

In an attempt to bolster its claim that the president is soft on welfare reform, the Romney campaign points to comments Obama made in 1998, two years after the work requirements were signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

“I was not a huge supporter of the federal plan that was signed in 1996,” said Obama, then an Illinois state senator, at a Brookings Institution panel on economic revitalization of cities on June 8, 1998.

But the Romney campaign leaves off the rest of the quote, in which Obama says the reforms could lead to a broader coalition to push for more economic opportunity — and jobs — for lower income people.

“I do think there was a potential political opportunity that arose out of welfare reform,” Obama said, “and that is to desegregate the welfare population, meaning the undeserving poor, black folks in cities, from the working poor — deserving white, rural as well as suburban. Now you’ve got just a bunch of folks who are struggling at the bottom of the economic class.”

—By CNBC's Scott Cohn