Tuesday, September 11, 2012

PolitiFact and the gutting of Welfare reform (Updated)

Many of us on the political right heard about the Obama administration's proposed waivers for Welfare work requirements cast in a frame suggesting Obama had rolled back a significant aspect of the Republican-led Welfare reform plan Clinton signed into law in the 1990s.

The Romney campaign didn't take long to produce ads criticizing the change.

Almost as quickly, mainstream fact checkers found fault with such ads.

The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!
 We were suspicious.  But to call the fact checkers on a mistake takes research.

Enter Mickey Kaus, piggybacking on The New York Times:
Here’s how the Times describes what Nevada wants to do:
[Nevada] asked to discuss flexibility in imposing those requirements. Perhaps, the state asked, those families hardest to employ could be exempted from the work requirements for six months while officials worked with them to stabilize their households. [E.A.]
“Exempted from the work requirements for six months.” That’s not just “weakening” work requirements–the safe, milder charge I chose to make a couple of days ago. It’s explicitly tossing them out the window for an extended period–“to allow time for their barriers to be addressed and their household circumstances stabilized”, in Nevada’s words.
Nevada, recall, was one of the states the Obama administration cited as requesting waivers from the Welfare reform work requirements.

This piece of evidence alone doesn't make the Romney ad accurate.  But it does render the "Pants on Fire" verdict very questionable.

And then there's Robert Rector, writing for the National Review:
(I)t appears the administration intends to do away with standards of the reform law that require 30 to 40 percent of the work-eligible TANF caseload to engage in clearly defined activities for 20 to 30 hours per week. It will replace those standards with a new standard urging that the work-eligible caseload engage in vaguely defined activities for as little as one hour per week. This sounds a lot like “gutting” to most reasonable people.
Read all of Rector's argument and look for additional information before making a final judgment.  Don't trust in mainstream fact checkers like PolitiFact.

We'll keep following this issue as it develops.

Update 9/11/2012:

Our apologies for neglecting information pointed out in August by Senior Attorney Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute:
The Obama Administration’s move to gut welfare reform puzzled Kaus, who voted for Obama in 2008. But perhaps it shouldn’t have baffled him, since it reflects Obama’s longstanding antipathy to reforms of the welfare system aimed at reducing dependency on welfare and requiring welfare recipients to work. “For example, in the years immediately after passage of the [1996 reform] law, Barack Obama himself pledged to do all he could to undo it,” noted the Washington Examiner. As the Examiner's Chief Political Correspondent, Byron York, noted, on July 12, the Obama administration ‘released an official policy directive rewriting the welfare reform law of 1996’” to allow the “Department of Health and Human Services to waive the work requirement at the heart of welfare reform.”

Obama also gutted welfare reform in other ways, such as supporting and signing into law a stimulus package that rewarded states for promoting welfare dependency, giving state governors an incentive to try to water down any work requirements for welfare recipients to keep federal welfare money flowing.
In a subsequent essay, Bader delivers appropriate words for PolitiFact:
In arguing that waivers won’t lead to the gutting of the 1996 welfare reform law, since the Obama administration now says it won’t approve waivers unless it makes welfare reform more successful, left-leaning “independent” fact-checkers like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org chose to rely on political spin from the Obama administration in response to the furor over its action, and self-serving, unsubstantiated, and non-binding statements about its intentions, rather than on what the Obama administration actually did in claiming for itself the broad authority to waive the work requirements at the heart of the welfare-reform law (and what it actually said in its July 12 HHS memo claiming that authority, which discussed “the sort of waivers they want to grant,” which do indeed “weaken work requirements,” and did so in response to a waiver request by Nevada, which expressly sought to weaken work requirements, as Mickey Kaus has noted at The Daily Caller).
We echo Bader's question:  Why did PolitiFact remain effectively silent regarding contrary expert opinion?

This is the game we end up with so often from PolitiFact.  PolitiFact ends "he said/she said" journalism by arbitrarily picking the clear winner between two plausible opposing viewpoints.  The result gives us "PolitiFact says" journalism.

Jeff adds:

I looked through PolitiFact's source list but wasn't able to see a poll they cited that determined Romney's ad "inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance." How did PolitiFact determine the reaction millions of viewers had to the ad? Unless they offer some evidence of the audience reaction, PolitiFact is simply editorializing.

PolitiFact takes another cue from the opinion pages in its summary:
Romney’s ad says, "Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
How is that a drastic distortion? If Romney had used Nevada's language, and said "You could be exempt from work requirements and you'll still get a welfare check" would PolitiFact have awarded Romney with a shiny True? PolitiFact's hyperbolic description is raw opinion that shouldn't be confused with verifiable evidence of a falsehood.

And check out this gem describing the same policy that allows states to provide a six month exemption from work requirements:
"The requirement was for more work, not less."
That's a portion of a Bill Clinton statement that PolitiFact rated True.

I'm also struggling to imagine the fantasy world where PolitiFact would ever write this paragraph:
That's a drastic distortion of the planned changes to the Affordable Care Act. By granting waivers to states, the Romney administration is seeking to make health insurance mandates more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs -- HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to ObamaCare.
In PolitiFact's world of facts, illegally granting waivers and exemptions to laws is a way to strengthen policy. Keep that in mind should the GOP control the White House and Congress next year.
Romney's claim is entirely accurate. Partisans can argue about whether or not it's misleading, or if it's a reasonable summation of Obama's policy. But Romney's statement that a person could still receive a welfare check without working or training is unarguably based on fact. Attempts to claim otherwise are pure editorial spin.

This is how the non-non-partisans at PolitiFact have always operated, though in the past they did better at keeping their campaign chaff out of their research wheat. They must be getting antsy, or perhaps they're getting cocky. Either way, their unabashed defense of liberal policies is less and less camouflaged as the election nears.

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