Mudslinging and downright distortion are now an integral part of the presidential race, but one recent advertisement from the Romney campaign stands out. The ad slams Obama for allegedly changing the work requirements that were set under the 1996 welfare reform law. The tagline of the ad is, “under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job, they just send you your welfare check, and ‘welfare to work’ goes back to being plain old welfare.” PolitiFact gave the ad a “pants on fire” rating, stating that none of the ad’s claims are substantiated by actual policies under consideration.
What is peculiar is that the ad revisits a policy issue that is effectively dead. The rightwing made welfare for single mothers and children a favorite punching bag in the 1980s and 1990s, but they mainly stopped after welfare reform. As many readers of this blog know, compared to two decades ago, the number of individuals on welfare in the United States has dwindled, and cash assistance now accounts for a tiny portion of the social spending budget. The figure below (from this report) shows the precipitous drop in welfare enrollment over time.
Romney strategists probably believe that by bringing the welfare skeleton out of the closet that they can still rile up potential voters about the evils of government spending on underserving welfare recipients. Do Americans still think that welfare spending is a problem? The first place I looked for answers was the General Social Survey, which has asked people for decades whether we are spending too much, too little, or the right amount on welfare.
The proportion of respondents saying that we spend “too much” on welfare peaked in the mid 1970s dropped during the 1980s, and peaked again in 1996 at the height of the welfare reform battle. By 2000 the proportion was back to the same level as the 1990s when the program was more than triple the size. The fraction remained at about that level since. It is as if welfare reform never happened.
It’s hard to know why such a large proportion of the American public still believes we spend “too much” on welfare, fifteen years after the program was majorly slashed. Could it be that Americans are harder on government spending on the poor now than they were two decades ago, so they are more critical of welfare by extension? Helpfully, the GSS has also asked respondents whether they believe that the government in Washington is responsible for improving the standard of living of the poor, the poor are responsible for helping themselves, or both. As the figure below shows, in good times and bad times, Republican administrations and Democrat administrations, support for government action has remained steady (except for a one-time uptick in the first year of the survey).
More likely is that the public always remains somewhat ambivalent about social spending, and they are therefore receptive to messages that link spending on welfare with other social or governmental failings. Martin Gilens shows that in the 1980s and 1990s much of the political opposition to welfare worked through racial stereotypes, especially about blacks that were too dependent on the state. What is notable about the Romney add is that it focuses on keeping people in the workforce, and only depicts whites in the television commercial (perhaps to avoid a criticism of racial bias). The current anxiety about the economy and about “runaway” government spending come together in this ad to ask, “how can we support a policy that both keeps people out of the labor force while keeping them dependent on the government dime?”
It’s the kind of message that could work even when there is no factual basis for the allegation, and that’s exactly the problem for supporters of the welfare state. One lesson from welfare reform is that liberals that get tough on social programs rarely are rewarded in the long-term in politics. Time will tell whether distorted ads like this actually are effective for Romney. If they are, we can expect more of this policy déjà vu in future elections.