This week Mitt Romney set off a stink by claiming, in an appearance in Elk Grove Village, that Barack Obama just destroyed welfare-to-work in America, and is creating a "culture of dependency." It's much more complicated than that. But lost in the fight has been the Obama campaign's response. Tweaking Romney's past as a moderate, they responded to the Republican line of attack with… a Republican line of attack:
"As governor, Mitt Romney petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients," said Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith.
Free cars to welfare recipients? That brings up childhood memories. (Naturally, the Cadillac-driving welfare queen of yore lived in Chicago.)
So: did Romney create a program that "handed out free cars to welfare recipients"? Yes, reader, he did. It did other things, too; it's a pretty interesting program.
Here's the memo that lays it out. The state didn't buy cars for welfare recipients. They were donations acquired from a Lutheran social-services program, Good News Garage. The donor gets a tax write-off; the recipient gets a car someone didn't want, if he or she fulfills some requirements:
• be employed or about to become employed (within 30 days of the
• have a MA driver’s license;
• have no means of transportation to get to the job site;
• not own a vehicle, and
• not have been sanctioned for any reason in the last six months.
Plus the potential car owner has to have a clean enough record that insurance is deemed affordable, because it's one of the things the state picks up for the first year:
• insurance (recipients are responsible for obtaining insurance);
• excise tax; title; registration; inspection (recipient must get a receipt from the inspection station); 100% of the cost of approved repairs (Good News Garage will determine if the problems were caused by owner negligence), and
• a free AAA membership.
To keep those benefits, recipients had to turn in monthly pay stubs. If they didn't, all the benefits were revoked, but recipients kept the car (20 percent went back on welfare), and that made a lot of people angry. But there's a rationale behind it:
Further work by Blumenberg with Margy Waller for The Brookings Institution emphasized that public transit is additionally problematic for single mothers. Anyone who faces multiple stops on her daily commute—to accommodate child care, schools or shopping—will ﬁnd public transit frustrating and inconvenient. This report also noted that access to reliable transportation is not solely an urban issue. The authors pointed out that 44 per cent of metropolitan low-income American families live in suburban locations where public transit is even less reliable than in downtown cores.
Tying this to Romney in the midst of a welfare debate is, as Josh Eidelson writes, curiously Reaganesque—a Democratic campaign subtly positioning itself to the right of its Republican opponent. But these are strange times.
Photograph: The White House