Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Work Claim

His new ad says he "worked his way" through college and law school. His campaign says he had a few summer jobs and once sold newspaper subscriptions while in college.


Obama’s latest ad repeats an often-stated claim, saying he "worked his way through college and Harvard Law.” We know Obama took out loans to get himself through school. But the campaign at first provided information on just two jobs Obama had in those years, and they were both in the summer.

The ad also says he "passed a law to move people from welfare to work, slashed the rolls by 80 percent." Actually, the Illinois law was a required follow-up to the 1996 federal welfare reform law worked out by President Clinton and the Republican Congress. Welfare rolls did go down by nearly as much as the ad says, but Obama can’t claim sole credit.

Update, July 25: Our original story said in the headline that Obama’s campaign listed only two summer jobs. Now that a spokesman has provided additional information, we have updated this article accordingly. But it’s still a stretch for Obama to say he "worked his way through college."


Obama’s new ad, "Dignity," is largely a 30-second version of his last one, "Country I Love." It, too, will be airing in 18 states, according to the presumptive Democratic nominee’s campaign.

[TET ]

Working to Make it Work

Obama: I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

Announcer: He worked his way through college and Harvard Law.

Turned down big money offers, and helped lift neighborhoods stung by job loss. Fought for workers’ rights.

He passed a law to move people from welfare to work, slashed the rolls by eighty percent. Passed tax cuts for workers; health care for kids.

As president, he’ll end tax breaks for companies that export jobs, reward those that create jobs in America.

And never forget the dignity that comes from work.[/TET]

Working to Make It Work

The ad begins with the announcer telling us that Obama "worked his way through college and Harvard Law." Actually, Obama took out loans to get himself through college, as we heard in a 60-second ad his campaign began running last month. We don’t know how much assistance his family provided.

But "worked his way" through college and law school? The only back-up the campaign provided for this claim was a quote from Obama’s book "Dreams from My Father" having to do with a construction job he had one summer while he was in college, and an article mentioning his job as a summer associate one year at a big Chicago law firm. We asked campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor if Obama held jobs during the school year, or other summer jobs, but he said only, "He had the two jobs I told you about." Unless Obama had a good bit more employment than his spokesman was able to describe for us, it’s a real stretch to claim he "worked his way" through school.

Update, July 25: Three weeks after we posted this story, the Obama campaign listed some additional jobs the candidate held during his college years. Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said that Obama had three summer jobs Vietor didn’t tell us about for our original article: one at a gift shop in Hawaii after his first year of college; another making sandwiches at a deli counter, also in Hawaii; and a third with a company that processed health records of police or firefighters. In addition, Vietor said, during one school year Obama worked as a telemarketer selling New York Times subscriptions over the phone. Without additional information, which we have asked for but which, so far, has not been provided by the campaign, we haven’t been able to independently verify this information.

Had we known this at the time we wrote our story, we might have debated our conclusion about the ad’s claim that Obama “worked his way through college and Harvard Law” more extensively. We have our doubts, though, that the first three positions did much more than help support Obama in the summer between school years; we don’t know about the fourth.

We do note, though, that Obama released a new Spanish-language radio ad this week that puts it differently:

Obama ad: Through student loans and hard work, he graduated from college.

We don’t have any quarrel with that.

No More Handouts

As in his last ad, this one touts three bills that Obama "passed," and once again we’re not told whether the bills were products of the Illinois Senate or the U.S. Senate. We’ll fill you in: In this ad, all three pieces of legislation mentioned were passed in the Illinois Senate.

The first bill that’s cited is the 1997 law that created the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program in Illinois. The ad claims Obama "passed a law to move people from welfare to work, slashed the rolls by 80 percent." That’s going too far. First, the law in question wasn’t dreamed up out of thin air by its sponsors. It was the follow-up to the welfare reform act, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, that President Clinton signed on Aug. 26, 1996. That law gave states the ability to design their own welfare programs as long as they met certain federal requirements, including limits on how long recipients could get benefits. The bill that Obama cosponsored was Illinois’ version.

And far from having "passed" the bill single-handedly, Obama was among five Senate sponsors of the measure, as we said previously. It was passed by both chambers of the Illinois Legislature and signed into law by the governor.

Welfare reform was successful in moving people off public assistance. There was about a 78 percent drop in the number of families receiving public assistance in Illinois between 1998 and 2006. But we don’t think Obama alone, or even Obama and the four other sponsors of the Illinois law, can take credit for all of this. It was the federal law, hammered out by Clinton and the Republican Congress, that set the wheels in motion and forced states to act. Nationwide, the number of families on welfare declined quite a bit as well, going from 3,146,870 in ’98 to 1,805,900 in ’06, a decrease of almost 43 percent.

Also, our friends at PolitiFact talked to an expert who said part of the steep drop in Illinois’ numbers was due to other factors, such as a state bureaucracy that took an aggressive approach to ejecting people from the rolls, sometimes erroneously.

A Passable Record

Just as in his earlier ad, Obama takes credit for passing "tax cuts for workers." Here, the announcer is talking about the Illinois earned income tax credit, which came into being in 2000. The bill doesn’t contain Obama’s name as an original sponsor, but according to The Associated Press, he was the linchpin of the effort but let Republicans, who held the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, take the lead on it.

The third law Obama claims sole responsibility for is an expansion of Illinois’ KidCare program, a low-cost health insurance program aimed at working families making too much to qualify for Medicaid. Obama did in fact sponsor the bill in 2003 that allowed families making up to 200 percent of the poverty level – rather than the previous 185 percent – to participate. When Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the bill on July 1, 2003, he said it would make 20,000 more children and 65,000 more adults immediately eligible for the program.

–by Viveca Novak


Toomey, Shamus. "Health Program Expanded." Chicago Daily Herald, 2 July 2003.

Robinson, Mike. "Obama got start in civil rights practice." The Associated Press, 20 Feb. 2007.

State of Illinois Public Act 90-0017. 90th General Assembly.

Public Law 104-193, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. 104th Congress.

"Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Work Activities, Excluding Waivers, for Families Meeting the All Family Work Requirements, Fiscal Year 1998," Table 2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Status of TANF Families as Relates to All Families Work Participation Rates, Fiscal Year 2006," Table 3A. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

State of Illinois Public Act 91-0700. 91st General Assembly.

State of Illinois Public Act 93-0063. 93rd General Assembly.