WASHINGTON – Welfare is causing a ruckus in the presidential campaign. But the program is a shadow of its old self from the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan used the image of "welfare queens" to assail government poverty programs promoted by liberals.
Nowadays government cash assistance to the poor is mainly conditioned on work. And the Obama administration waivers excoriated by Mitt Romney as gutting welfare reform are unlikely to reverse that basic policy, as even some architects of work requirements acknowledge.
"If Washington were different and ... people could sit down and reason together, it's not impossible to think that Republicans and Democrats would come to an agreement on waivers similar to what the administration is proposing," said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families. As a senior House GOP aide in the 1990s, Haskins helped write the original welfare-to-work legislation.
The Obama administration says it does not want to waive work requirements, but instead primarily federal administrative rules, including some that tie up state caseworkers who could be serving clients.
The 1996 welfare reform law, a pillar of social policy for conservatives, replaced a federal entitlement with grants to the states, while putting a time limit on how long families can get aid and requiring recipients to eventually go to work.
Welfare caseloads declined for years before the recession, and there are only about 2 million families on what's now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF for short. It's dwarfed by the Earned Income Tax Credit, the government's main anti-poverty program, which supplements the earnings of low-income families through the tax system and helps nearly 27 million households.
Former GOP aide Haskins said the Obama administration was wrong to roll out its waiver plan without first getting the advice and consent of congressional Republicans. But he added, "There is merit to what the administration is proposing, and I don't see how you can get to the conclusion that the waiver provision undermines welfare reform and it eliminates the work requirement."
It's not a blanket waiver because states would have to apply one at time for exemptions from certain requirements of the welfare-to-work law. And states must show their plans would move at least 20 percent more people to work.
Moreover, with or without waivers, there's cap on the total amount of federal money available to states for welfare — about $17 billion — so it would not make much financial sense for a state to waste any of those dollars.
Such details seemed to have no place on the campaign trail.
A Romney ad Tuesday that accused Obama of quietly unraveling the work requirements was quickly slammed by the White House as dishonest. The debate took a further spin when former President Bill Clinton, the Democrat who signed the bipartisan welfare changes into law, came to Obama's defense.
Then Wednesday morning came the counterpunch from the Republican National Committee, which put former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a conference call with reporters. As Clinton's GOP counterpart during the 1990s welfare debate, Gingrich had high praise for the former president while heaping disdain on Obama, whom he dubbed "the anti-Clinton."
Gingrich suggested that the Obama administration's waiver program is illegal because it would allow Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to relax some restrictions spelled out in a section of the law that Republicans contend is protected from such waivers.
However, Sebelius says she has a legal opinion from department attorneys that says waivers are allowed to test if state experiments would improve the program.
Gingrich said that's exactly what you'd expect to hear from liberals trying to undermine welfare reform by stealth.
He called Sebelius "a radical" and dismissed views of former GOP aide Haskins, saying, "I was sorry that he has such a lack of imagination."
The administration says its waiver plan was prompted by interest from the states, including Nevada and Utah, which have Republican governors. On Wednesday, both states responded.
Mary-Sarah Kinner, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval's press secretary, said Nevada had not and would not seek a waiver. Ally Isom, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's deputy chief of staff, acknowledged that Utah sought waivers but not from work requirements.
The administration says work requirements are not on the table.
It's unclear where the welfare debate will go next. The administration said Wednesday there are no plans to reconsider the waiver policy. Congressional Republicans are pursuing legislation to block the waivers, but it's unlikely to advance beyond the GOP-dominated House.
Republicans also face a tricky political calculation because some see racial undertones in making an issue out of programs like welfare and food stamps. The latest statistics show the welfare caseload is divided thus: 33 percent black, 31 percent white and 29 percent Hispanic.
Gingrich addressed the race issue. "To have an honest discussion about dependency doesn't mean you are being a racist," he said.
Associated Press writers Ivan Moreno in Salt Lake City and Sandra Chereb in Carson City, Nev., contributed from Utah.