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A little over a year ago, I wrote:

When conservatives start talking "welfare reform," progressives usually respond one of two ways. We either: (a) start inching towards the exits; or (b) stand in open-mouthed wonder, asking one another "Wait, they're not serious, right?"

In light of recent events, I need to amend my earlier statement. When conservatives start talking about "welfare reform" — especially when they get worked up about extolling or protecting its "success" — progressives had better sit up, pay attention, and speak up. Conservatives are very serious about this; just not in the way you might think.

The Right's Coordinated Conniption Fit

I wrote the words above back in April of 2011, when Paul Ryan invoked the welfare reform of the late 90s to help sell his "Path to Prosperity." Specifically, Ryan claimed that his plan to convert federal Medicaid funding into a block grant that "lets states create a range of options" in determining who's eligible for Medicaid, and how much or how little to spend on it. Shortly afterwards, I launched into a long series on just what Paul Ryan and the Republicans wanted to do to Medicaid.

It's indicative of how far gone the GOP is, compared to just a year ago, that Ryan's statement actually makes sense on some level. At least Ryan was still sticking to a basic conservative principle — state-led innovation, instead of federally-mandated policy. As Bill Scher pointed out, Republicans are apparently willing to abandon their principles where President Obama is concerned.

Now, conservatives are going full-tilt boogie with their latest "orchestrated hissy fit," as Digby calls it (Or, "coordinated conniption fit," as I call it), over new HHS waiver initiative that gives states more of that flexibility conservatives are usually so enamored of.

Conservatives are taking a big risk throwing a hissy fit over the new HHS state waiver initiative to experiment with welfare-to-work methods.

Charging President Obama with scheming to "gut" welfare reform's mission of moving aid recipients into the workforce is the usual baseless nonsense. The initial announcement itself clearly explains that the waivers from federal requirements are so states can try "demonstration projects" geared toward "improving employment outcomes" which will need " a federally-approved evaluation plan." Further, "failure to meet performance targets" would lead to "termination of the waivers and demonstration project."

Catastrophic Success

In this latest bit of political theater, conservatives claim to to defending the "success" of welfare reform from federal intervention. Of course, it's not true.

Conservatives are taking a big risk throwing a hissy fit over the new HHS state waiver initiative to experiment with welfare-to-work methods.

Charging President Obama with scheming to "gut" welfare reform's mission of moving aid recipients into the workforce is the usual baseless nonsense. The initial announcement itself clearly explains that thewaivers from federal requirements are so states can try "demonstration projects" geared toward "improving employment outcomes" which will need " a federally-approved evaluation plan." Further, "failure to meet performance targets" would lead to "termination of the waivers and demonstration project."

What conservatives are seeking to preserve is the "catastrophic success" of welfare reform.

See, there's the problem with this is that the welfare reform of the late 1990s was not a success. Not unless you're a conservative. And even then it was at best a "catastrophic success" — defined here as "success" that's actually catastrophic for those it's purported to help. That's also what makes it a success. That is, if you're a conservative.

What makes it a success? Well, in a sense, failure. It works if it doesn't work, in other words, especially if it doesn't work for the right people — because the right people are the wrong people. Follow me? No?

If you want a detailed explanation, I recommend Paul Rosenberg's six-part series, "The Myth That Conservative Welfare Reform Worked." Rosenberg lays out the wrong-headed assumptions that drove the 1996 welfare reform passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Democratic president Bill Clinton — a program so punitive that two members of President Bill Clinton's administration quit in protest. He thoroughly debunks, the conservative idea that our welfare system caused the very problems it was intended so solve, and does so in such detail I can't hope to duplicate it here. I direct you to part 2 of his six-post series for that.

As I wrote a year ago, and Isaiah Poole wrote just a few months ago, welfare reform was failure.  Brad Plumer supplied the statistics to prove it over a year ago. Welfare caseloads declined from 4.4 million to 2 million. But what happened to those families that states kicked of the welfare rolls?

  • 57 percent were working (about 40 percent full-time)
  • 26 percent had returned to welfare
  • 14 percent had "no employment income, no working spouse, and no cash welfare or public disability benefits." (Presumably some of these families receive other benefits from America's stingy safety net, such as housing assistance, food stamps, or WIC grants.)

Remember — whether it's healthcare reform, jobs, or the economy — progressives and conservatives are almost never talking about  about the same thing. That's true when it comes to welfare reform too.

Paul Ryan, in his WSJ op-ed, says that with his roadmap we "strengthen and improve welfare programs for those who need them, we eliminate welfare for those who don't." It curious, because it really does sound like he wants to duplicate the catastrophic success of the welfare reform of the 1990s. The "success" was getting people off welfare rolls, not necessarily improving their condition. It was about reducing the number of people receiving government assistance, not reducing the need for assistance. Simply put, it's fewer people getting help, instead of fewer people needing help.

What makes it a success is also what makes it catastrophic; at least for the people fall from the welfare rolls. Getting people off welfare rolls isn't a good measure of success, because it fails to ask what they fall into. If the answer is "they go to work," the next question is whether they go to work that pays them a livable wage, and whether they go to work that gives them an opportunity to improve their economic status, rather than just barely get by. That's success.

Both Rosenberg and Plummer point out that the 1996 welfare reform failed to lower the poverty rate. The decline in the poverty rate among African Americans actually slowed after 1996. Among single working mothers, the poverty rate actually increased, because the jobs they get are "often precarious; an illness or a broken car can easily mean getting fired, with only a shredded safety net to fall back on." Plummer asks "So what, exactly, did welfare reform accomplish, apart from pushing people who genuinely need assistance off the rolls and saving the government a few bucks?" The answer would seem to be "Not much." Perhaps because that's all it was supposed to do.

A Calculated Campaign of Lies

So, conservatives are lying about Obama "gutting" welfare reform. And while they don't think so, they're lying about the "success" of welfare reform. But conservatives aren't abandoning conservative principles just for the hell of it. Dave Johnson pointed out that Republicans are conducting a calculated campaign of lies. Besides cataloging the Romney campaign's lies, and detailing just how this campaign is conducted, Dave explained the calculation behind the lies.

This is a key thing to get, the Romney campaign believes that they can win this election using lies and propaganda as "truths" to drive their campaign story. They are making the calculation that the right's media machine has become sufficiently powerful for their version of reality to reach enough of the public, and that it is sticking in their minds as "truths!"

They are also making the calculation -- so far validated by the media response -- that there will be little if any pushback from "mainstream" media. They trust that the media will look the other way, report lies as "one side says X, the other says Y," tell the public "both sides do it," and say this is just par for the course.

The Welfare Distraction

This welfare reform lie comes on the heels of reports that Romney's tax plan doesn't add up. Romney's regressive tax plan and the Republican budget put together would raise taxes on the working poor and the middle-class, and give millionaires another tax cut — without lowering the deficit or growing the economy.

It's said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still lacing up its shoes. The welfare reform lie is one that conservatives have kept ready at the starting gate for a while now. This week, following Romney's disastrous trip abroad and news of his tanking favorability ratings, Republicans fired the starting pistol.

This is not a coincidence. It's a distraction, just as calculated and deliberate as Romney's vagueness about his policies. Republicans are a counting on two things: voters not knowing what their policies really are; and voters not believing that Republicans could possibly be as extreme as they've become. 

Mitt Romney and the Republicans are being shielded from accountability for their economic plan, because the plan is so extreme that many people just won't believe you when you tell them about it. They think that you have something wrong with you for saying such things! This week I am going to look at the Romney economic plan and the Republican budget that passed the house and Romney has endorsed.

…Many people just can't believe that the Republicans have become as extreme as they have become. As described in a NY Times Magazine story on SuperPacs last month,

For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed “ending Medicare as we know it” — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.

This disbelief, combined with a powerful ability to take their own message to the public through FOX News, talk radio, FOX-owned newspapers and their allies, right-wing blogs and many other channels, provides Republicans with cover to advance their plutocratic agenda.

That plutocratic agenda has been spelled out in a budget that would obliterate whats left of the safety net. in the name of protecting and expanding the only kind of welfare that matters: welfare for the wealthy.

That's why they're willing to raise taxes on 113 million working- and middle-class households to spare 345,000 millionaires a surtax so tiny it would amount to 1/50th of their income. It's not even a vote for the 1 percent over the 99 percent. It's a vote for the 0.2 percent, that would cost us about 400,000 jobs.

That’s why the $30 million a year the government spends in welfare for those who earn $1 million or more a year never gets mentioned. It’s why the tax expenditures for the wealthy — which cost more than what we spend on defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and all the other non-defense discretionary programs is never addressed, and is thus sacrosanct while all the other programs above are targeted for cuts.

It all boils down to the Randian notion that the 1 percent contribute the most to the real wealth of society, while the other 99 contributes nothing and merely “leeches” off the mythically "self-made" one percent. But they're the ones who've been getting a free ride for the last decade or so, at great cost to the other 99 percent of us. The one percent is largely made up of Wall Streeters, hedge fund mangers and other financial sector types — who arguably create nothing of social value, but have instead destroyed more wealth than they've created, and caused more misery in a quest to suck even more out of the rest of us.

As maddening as it may be, progressives can't afford to be distracted by the right's latest calculated lie. It's one that's easily proven wrong, and we should call it out as the lie that it is. But we can't merely get bogged down in disproving the right's long list of lies. That's one more thing that they're counting on: that we'll spend so much time disproving their lies again again, that we'll be too distracted to attack their real agenda. 

That, for conservatives, would be the ultimate distraction.

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