A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Santorum’s Distorted ‘Dependency’ Claims


Rick Santorum blames President Barack Obama for “a nightmare of dependency with almost half of America receiving some sort of government assistance.” But the same could have been said of George W. Bush. In fact, the Census Bureau reported that in the third quarter of 2008, under Bush, “nearly half of U.S. residents live in households receiving government benefits.”

Back then, Census reported that 44.4 percent of Americans received some sort of government benefits. That has risen to 49 percent under Obama as of the most recent figures available, and much of that modest increase is due to the aging Baby Boom generation reaching retirement age.

Indeed, Santorum is also being profoundly misleading when he refers to all “government assistance” as a “nightmare.” Those receiving benefits include tens of millions of senior citizens and disabled persons on Social Security and Medicare.

Santorum also distorts the facts when he says Obama “showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare.” Nothing has been waived yet, for one thing. The Obama administration now allows states to request a federal waiver from certain work requirements — if the states develop and enforce a new set of welfare-to-work rules that prove more effective.

‘Nightmare of Dependency’?

The former Pennsylvania senator, who unsuccessfully challenged Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination, spoke at the convention on Aug. 28. His speech focused on work and the American Dream — mentioning the word “dream” a dozen times and “work” (or a variant of it) 14 times.

Santorum accused Obama of turning the dream into a “nightmare of dependency.”

Santorum, Aug. 28: Under President Obama, the dream of freedom and opportunity has become a nightmare of dependency with almost half of America receiving some sort of government assistance.

But that shockingly high number — “almost half of America” — isn’t particularly new, and it hardly amounts to a “nightmare” for the 55 million persons who got Social Security retirement or disability payments last year.

The Census Bureau conducts quarterly surveys of income and program participation, and estimates the number of Americans who are enrolled in at least one government program. The four programs with the highest number of enrollees — those with at least 40 million Americans enrolled — are Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps and Medicare.

In the third quarter of 2008, when Bush was president, the Census Bureau estimated that 44.4 percent of Americans were enrolled in at least one government program. (The Census Bureau could not provide us with the fourth quarter of 2008.) To be sure, that number has gone up under Obama. In the second quarter of 2011, it was 49 percent (see table 2). (The second quarter statistics were released this month and are the most recent available.)

The two programs with the largest enrollments under both presidents were, in order, Medicaid and Social Security.

Under Bush, 23.8 percent of Americans were on Medicaid, and under Obama, the figure is 26.4 percent. But enrollment in Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income Americans, is driven in large part by economic factors.

Social Security, on the other hand, is driven by an aging population, and the percentage of Americans on that, too, has gone up under Obama. It was 14.9 percent under Bush, and 16.2 percent under Obama.

The point is that the increase in Americans receiving some sort of government benefit is driven by two factors: an aging population and a weak economy. Of course, Republicans blame the weak economy on Obama, and whether Obama is to blame is a matter of opinion that we’ll leave to readers to decide. But it’s wrong to blame Obama for being responsible for “almost half of America receiving some sort of government assistance,” when the same thing can be said of Bush.

Distorting Welfare, Too

Santorum also joined the Romney campaign’s false attack on Obama for changes the president made to welfare — formally know as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program.

Santorum, Aug. 28: Requiring work as a condition for receiving welfare succeeded. … And this summer he showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare.

The fact is, though, that Obama is still requiring work as a condition for receiving welfare.

As we have explained before, the administration in July announced it would allow states under certain circumstances to obtain a waiver from the federal work requirements. But only if the state sets up a welfare-to-work “demonstration project” (not to exceed five years) that provides a “more efficient or effective means to promote employment.”

States must set up “interim performance targets” and, if states fail to meet those, they will be “required to develop improvement plans.” If the improvement plans fail, then those states will lose their waivers and return to the work rules as set by statute.

States have a financial incentive to get people off welfare and into jobs, and some states — including Republican administrations in Utah and Nevada — have urged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide waivers as a way to give the states greater flexibility to improve their welfare-to-work programs.

  • Utah suggested that HHS relax the costly and time-consuming process of verifying and documenting that welfare recipients are meeting the work requirements. “In times of reduced funding, waivers may be the best method to allow states to find effective and efficient approaches to assist the unemployed to find and keep work,” a Utah welfare official wrote.
  • Nevada recommended four “possible waiver opportunities” — including allowing states to exempt the “hardest-to-employ” welfare recipients from the work requirements “for a period of time (i.e., six months) to allow time for their barriers to be addressed and their household circumstances stabilized.”

States could request waivers from a variety of federal work requirements, not just the requirement that states place at least 50 percent of their welfare recipients in so-called work activities. They include “definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures, and the calculation of participation rates.”

As a senator, Santorum voted for the 1996 law that created TANF and the work requirements, and he claims that the program has “succeeded.” That’s a matter of opinion. The fact, however, is that less than 30 percent of those receiving cash assistance are engaged in work activities — far short of the 50 percent required by the law. And some states, including Republican states, believe they can do better. If not, the worst that would happen is those states would have to return to a set of rules that Santorum and others had a hand in drafting.

Romney and his Republican allies keep making these attacks on Obama’s new welfare policy, even though we and our fact-checking colleagues have found the welfare claim to be bogus — or “Pants On Fire,” to quote our friends at Politifact. Why? Apparently the attacks are working. A Romney media strategist says it is the campaign’s “most effective ad.”

— Eugene Kiely