RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The latest clash between President Obama and Mitt Romney is over an issue dating to the 1990s - Bill Clinton's welfare overhaul. That law has a work requirement which is supposed to help move people off welfare and into jobs. Mitt Romney is now accusing the Obama White House of undermining the law, which the Obama administration calls an outright lie. We asked NPR's Ari Shapiro to do some truth squadding.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: First the accusation. The Romney campaign's new TV ad says Barack Obama has gutted the welfare laws.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 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.
SHAPIRO: That's a potent accusation with deep roots. Republicans have said for years that Democrats just want to send government checks to poor people without any accountability. Romney reiterated the claim at a rally outside of Chicago yesterday. He said welfare reform was one of the greatest bipartisan accomplishments of recent decades.
MITT ROMNEY: President Obama in just the last few days has tried to reverse that accomplishment by taking the work requirement out of welfare.
SHAPIRO: At the White House yesterday, spokesman Jay Carney accused the Romney campaign of lying.
JAY CARNEY: This advertisement is categorically false, and it is blatantly dishonest.
SHAPIRO: The Obama campaign followed up in a call with reporters. They explained that last month the Department of Health and Human Services gave states something that governors of both parties have wanted for years, a way out from under some of the welfare law's strict rules. But these state waivers don't end the work requirement. In fact, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter says it's just the opposite.
STEPHANIE CUTTER: States that get waivers have to increase job placement by 20 percent.
SHAPIRO: So states won't get a waiver unless they show that they can do a better job putting people back to work than under the existing program. Cutter pointed out that Mitt Romney himself asked for similar changes as governor of Massachusetts. When a Fox interview challenged Romney on the hypocrisy charge yesterday, the candidate stuck to his guns.
ROMNEY: I'm all in favor of flexibility for states. I'm not in favor of reducing the work requirement.
SHAPIRO: So what's the truth? Does this change to the law make it easier for people to get welfare checks without seeking a job? Here's one of the Republicans who helped write the law.
RON HASKINS: There no plausible scenario under which it really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform.
SHAPIRO: Ron Haskins was a senior Congressional staffer in 1990s, and now he runs the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.
HASKINS: First of all, the states have to apply individually for waivers, and they have to explain in detail, sometimes using data, why this approach would lead to either more employment or better jobs for people who are trying to stay off welfare or get off welfare.
SHAPIRO: Now, he's not sure the Obama administration had the authority to make these changes. He thinks it probably should have been left up to Congress.
HASKINS: So it was kind of like, you know, Democrats sticking their finger in the Republicans' eye because they just did a sneak attack, didn't consult, and so forth.
SHAPIRO: Poor form by the Democrats perhaps, but not the same at gutting welfare reform. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, traveling with the Romney campaign. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.