Following a July 2012 Health and Human Services memo offering states a chance to apply for waivers that would allow them more flexibility in complying with welfare’s work requirements, conservatives began claiming that President Obama had ‘gutted’ the 1996 welfare reform law and waived all work requirements associated with receiving assistance. This is false. Currently, activities that fulfill work requirements are narrowly defined by changes made during the law’s 2005 reauthorization, and the waivers would let states try out new approaches to moving welfare beneficiaries towards stable employment while maintaining the principle that recipients must be progressing towards work.
Yet the allegation remains popular among conservatives, thanks largely to the efforts of the Heritage Foundation’s in-house welfare expert, Robert Rector. In the past two months, Rector has published at least 16 items on the subject of welfare reform, including the July 12 blog post cited in Mitt Romney’s now-infamous television ad that provoked a storm of fact checks. Given his role in promoting the attack on the administration, Rector’s record deserves a closer look.
Rector was involved in crafting the 1996 welfare reform law and has spent more than two decades arguing that Americans who live in poverty are not truly “poor” because they own “modern amenities,” such as vehicles and household electronics. To bolster his position, Rector has cited statistics showing that impoverished Americans are “more likely to be overweight” than better-off Americans and outright denied that poverty is “harmful” to children. The clear intent of these claims is to undermine the logic behind the safety net. In fact, Rector has stated explicitly that welfare is based on the “idiot premise” that more resources will cause poor Americans to “behave more like middle-class people.”
Instead, Rector apparently believes that poverty is merely a symptom of substandard values. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that he is also a committed advocate for abstinence-only education, which he regards not as a public health issue but a simple question of morality. Dismissing “effectiveness” as a “bogus issue” when it comes to abstinence-only education, Rector complains that comprehensive sex-ed “normalizes” sexual activity outside of marriage.
Rector is affiliated with the Heritage Foundation’s Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, and he has collaborated with other DeVos Center researchers on his work relating to welfare reform and poverty. While the entire DeVos family is deeply involved in GOP politics, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation is among the most generous funders of conservative organizations, such as Focus on the Family and the Media Research Center. The foundation has given Heritage at least $10 million since 1998, including $3 million in 2010.