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Did Obama weaken the welfare work requirement?

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event in Charlottesville, Va., August 29, 2012.

Jeremy Hobson: As the Republican National Convention wraps up in Tampa, the Democratic National Convention is about to start up in Charlotte.

But before we let this week in politics go by, we're going to talk about one line of attack by the Romney campaign that's gotten a bit of attention.

That ad has been called false by independent fact checkers.

Marketplace Economic Correspondent Chris Farrell joins us now for a little history lesson.

Chris Farrell: Good morning, Jeremy.

Hobson: Chris, let's start with the facts here. I mean, what is the welfare work requirement exactly?

Farrell: OK, so in 1996, with the Welfare Reform Act, it really changed the way we give assistance to the neediest families. At the core of the change was the work requirement, and there are a number of definitions of what counts as work. So a job would be a classic, right? But there's also job training, an internship, taking classes. This is the type of thing that comes under the work requirement.

Hobson: And if you do those things, then you can get the assistance from the government?

Farrell: Right. You get the assistance from the government, but again, all the pressure is 'Let's get you prepared for work, let's get a job.' That requirement is a federal mandate, that requirement cannot be waived.

Hobson: So what about this charge that President Obama came in and weakened the work requirement for welfare?

Farrell: Well OK, let me make it really simple, Jeremy: The answer to that is no. So you have all these political fact-checkers, and they have various standards -- one is Pants on Fire, one is Four Pinocchios; fact-check says wrong. Maybe ours will be Four Angry Birds, something like that. I mean, look: What the administration said is we'll consider proposals from states if you have a better way to get welfare recipients into jobs. So, you know, it's a classic case of the states acting as laboratories of innovation. And back in 2005, Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he joined 28 other governors and they wrote a letter to Congres saying, you know, come on, you guys are considering an overhaul of the welfare law -- give us more flexibility, we want that. That's what governors want, and this is what governors do.

Hobson: But Chris, isn't the reason that this is playing with at least a certain portion of the population, that people are frustrated that the federal government is still having to send out checks to so many people so long after the recession began?

Farrell: Look, there is a whole debate that's going on, just as you're saying. If you look at the increase in food stamps, the increase in people who are taking unemployment insurance. So there is this genuine concern. But when it comes to the welfare work requirement, all I'm saying here is -- Jeremy, you'd be shocked, shocked that it's politics at play. Not economics, and not facts.

Hobson: Marketplace economics correspondent Chris Farrell. Thanks as always.

Farrell: Thank you.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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