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Romney, Obama spar over welfare work requirements

Mitt Romney on Tuesday accused President Obama of dismantling the bipartisan welfare reform law Bill Clinton signed in 1996, contending that Obama has waived work requirements on people who receive government assistance.

“If I’m president, I’ll put work back in welfare,” Romney said in Elk Grove Village, Ill. ‘‘We will end the culture of dependency and restore a culture of good hard work.”

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The assertion was an attempt by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee to introduce the issue of welfare reform into the campaign debate as he reaches out to middle-class voters. The campaign also released an ad using a similar line of attack against the president.

“On July 12,” the ad states, “President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. 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.”

The Obama campaign countered by citing a waiver request Romney made to Congress in 2005, as governor of Massachusetts, a waiver that it said was even more lenient on welfare work mandates.

A review of the issue, however, suggests neither Obama nor Romney has sought to ease work requirements on welfare recipients.

The Romney campaign’s claim is based on a memorandum from the Department of Health and Human Services that gives states the opportunity to seek waivers from federal welfare requirements.

But the agency said it would grant waivers only to states committed to “testing approaches that build on existing evidence on successful strategies for improving employment outcomes.”

Requests for such waivers have come primarily from Republican governors.

“The president recently gave states more tools they need to help move people from welfare to work as quickly as possible,” Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said on a conference call with reporters. “Contrary to what Romney is alleging, President Obama’s actions have strengthened, not weakened, the welfare system’s ability to move people from assistance to employment.”

The Obama administration created the waiver option in response to governors’ contentions that they could produce better results unbound by inflexible federal welfare rules.

The letter Romney signed seven years ago, along with 28 other members of the Republican Governors Association, made a similar argument.

“Romney is falsely criticizing a policy he once supported that empowers states to implement welfare reform,” Obama policy director James Kvaal said.

Yet Romney has long been a clear advocate of welfare work mandates. In 2005, he was criticized by Massachusetts Democrats for being so stringent.

At the time, Massachusetts was already operating under a federal waiver that made its welfare work requirements among the weakest in the nation. In July 2005, Romney filed a bill that would have more than doubled the number of state welfare recipients required to work.

State lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected Romney’s plan.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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