Although the former senator from Pennsylvania and the presumptive GOP nominee aren't exactly pals, Santorum is not an odd choice in the matter. He was a ranking member of the House Ways and Means subcommittee that took up welfare reform in the early '90s, wrote the Republicans' reform proposal for Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" and, when he won his seat in the Senate, wound up managing the reform bill on the Senate floor.
But what you won't hear him talking about are comments like those he made at a campaign stop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1994. It was there he proposed that people who couldn't find work after two years receiving welfare assistance should be assisted with 35-hour-a-week jobs in a WPA-style program. That was one of a number of New Deal programs designed to provide public jobs to people in various walks of life, from artists to construction workers:
"Thirty-five hours a week—in most cases, it'll be, y'know, public sector," Santorum explained. "Sort of like the, you remember the, I don't see anybody here old enough to remember this, but they had the WPA programs, the, y'know ... during the Depression."
Oooooooh. Socialism. Or, at least, what most Republicans think of as socialism.
But don't expect Santorum to make that kind of mistake again. Obama will be his target and no positive mention of FDR is going to help that effort. Nor is he likely to discuss
the badly needed reform of the reform that Bill Clinton signed 16 years ago.
In 1995, the predecessor of today's welfare system—Aid to Families with Dependent Children—lifted out of deep poverty 72 percent of the children who otherwise would have been in households earning below half the federal poverty line. A decade later, AFDC's successor TANF was lifting just 21 percent out of deep poverty.
A study published last winter by Danilo Trisi and LaDonna Pavetti found that, just after it go started, TANF provided cash assistance to 68 of every 100 families with children living in poverty. By 2010, it was providing cash assistance to only 27 of 100 such families. The two researchers label this the TANF-to-poverty ratio.
That ratio improved in the late 1990s because welfare caseloads dropped as the United States entered a brief period of prosperity. Many people who had previously been among the hard-core unemployed suddenly were able to find jobs. But the caseload continued to fall during the job-shedding hard years that followed. That was especially true during the most recent recession. What was for decades one of the key programs providing relief and lifting the poorest among us out of poverty no longer worked to do so. This was precisely what critics had said would occur when they debated the reform act: It would work in times of economic upturn, but not when things went the other direction.
And the consequences of this situation that Santorum takes credit for creating with the welfare reform he had such a big part in creating? According to Trisi and Pavetti: "The number of families with children in deep poverty increased by 33 percent between 1995 and 2010, from 2.4 million to 3.2 million. But TANF failed to respond to the increase in need: between 1995 and 2010, the number of families that received TANF declined by 58 percent."
Given their stance on food stamps and Medicaid—providing federal block grants to the states with spending capped well below what is now allocated—there is no question about how they would like to see TANF re-reformed. Rick "Blah" Santorum is, indeed, the perfect pitbull in this matter. The attack on Obama over welfare isn't dog-whistling, it's barking.