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Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI | welfare and the election

An old wedge issue returns in the campaign

Once again, it’s time to kick America’s poor.

A new ad from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accuses President Obama of “gutting welfare reform.” In opening this line of attack, Romney is resurrecting an old stereotype — the lazy, greedy welfare recipient, who will do anything to avoid honest employment — and reviving an old line of attack against Democrats as enablers.

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Using rhetoric that included the term “welfare queen,” Ronald Reagan made welfare into a classic wedge issue, pitting blue-collar workers against the stereotype of an underclass supported in perpetuity by taxpayers. But his party lost one of its favorite political hot buttons after Democrat Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996 that required states to move welfare recipients back into the workforce in order to receive federal funding.

Yet suddenly, years after Clinton ended “welfare as we know it,” the hot button is back. With battleground states on the line, Romney is pushing it hard. The Romney ad begins with Clinton signing the law. It goes on to accuse Obama of sneakily undermining the work requirement so the program goes back to being just welfare. It ends with a promise the Romney will put work back in the equation.

Romney’s attack on Obama was triggered by a memo from the Department of Health and Human Services that grants states some flexibility when it comes to work requirements. One problem that’s arisen is that, in a weak economy, moving welfare recipients into the workforce is unusually challenging for states. Yet the memo hardly abolishes work rules; it states that the department “is only interested in approving waivers if the state can explain in a compelling fashion why the proposed approach may be a more efficient or effective means to promote employment entry, retention, advancement, or access to jobs.”

And in fact, Republican and Democratic governors alike have been seeking such flexibility for years. Romney was one of 29 Republican governors who made such a request back in 2005. However, now Romney has decided he has more to gain by equating flexibility with enabling a new generation of supposedly slothful, entitled welfare recipients — the welfare kings and queens of the 21st century.

He’s not the only one. Back in Massachusetts, Republican Senator Scott Brown — who shares a political brain trust with the Romney campaign — picked up on the anti-welfare theme. He attacked Bay State officials for sending voter registration forms to people on public assistance.

The irony is that in a tough economy, more Americans need government help.

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The mailings were part of an interim settlement over a lawsuit alleging that Massachusetts failed to comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. But Brown cast them as a partisan plot to help his Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren.

It’s just another way of stirring up resentment over the use of taxpayer money for the benefit of poor people who are, the implication goes, too lazy and entitled to look for work — and shouldn’t be encouraged to vote, especially since they will be voting for Democrats.

The irony is that in a tough economy, more Americans need government help. When they lose jobs, they collect unemployment benefits. If things get really tough, they apply for food stamps and other public assistance. Yet Republicans are counting on some Americans to resent fellow citizens who need help, as well as the politicians who extend it. They may be onto something. During primary season, Newt Gingrich drew cheers when he derisively called Obama “the food-stamp president.”

With his own depiction of Obama as a coddler of Americans on the dole, Romney has his eye on the middle class. And so does Obama, as he runs against the rich.

The bottom line is that class warfare is going nuclear in 2012. It’s either soak the rich or kick the poor. It’s a product of the economic downturn and the frustration over the country’s sluggish recovery. According to a recent survey by The Associated Press, the number of Americans living at or below the poverty line — now 16 percent — is at its highest point since President Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964.

That makes it easy to pit the 99 percent against the 1 percent.

Now, Republicans are trying to turn the 99 percent against each other.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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