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Today is the 16th anniversary of the bipartisan welfare overhaul signed by President Clinton. The law has become a major issue in this year's presidential campaign. Mitt Romney insists President Obama gutted the law, even though every major fact-checking organization says those attacks are false.
NPR's Ari Shapiro looks at why the Romney campaign is sticking to its guns.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Mitt Romney rolled out this line of attack two weeks ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
SHAPIRO: Since then it's become a constant refrain in more ads and on the stump. Here was Romney last week in Zanesville, Ohio.
MITT ROMNEY: Going out and saying he's going to take the welfare - excuse me - the work requirement out of welfare. How in the world could he not understand the power of work, the dignity of work? And...
SHAPIRO: PolitiFact says Romney's claims are Pants On Fire Bogus. The Washington Post's fact checker awarded four Pinocchios, the top rating. And FactCheck.org reached the same conclusion that these claims are false.
Even a Republican architect of the welfare law, Ron Haskins, told NPR...
RON HASKINS: There's no plausible scenario under which it really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform.
SHAPIRO: Still, the accusation endures. Today, the Republican National Committee released a new ad. And a memo from the Romney campaign this morning included the claim that President Obama gutted welfare. So why keep beating this drum? Well, partly because people believe what they're hearing.
Peggy Testa and her husband came to a Paul Ryan rally outside of Pittsburgh yesterday.
PEGGY TESTA: You know, we think that the fact that the work requirement has been taken out of welfare is the wrong thing to do.
SHAPIRO: I told her that's not actually what happened.
TESTA: You know. I, at this point, don't know exactly what is true and what isn't, OK? But what I do know is I trust the Romney-Ryan ticket and I do not trust Obama.
SHAPIRO: Romney supporter Ken Mohn says it's really tough to know what's true anymore.
KEN MOHN: I think we always have to look at who the fact-checkers are. There's lots of groups that purport themselves to be neutral, non-partisan, but often are.
SHAPIRO: And this specific attack about welfare ties into a broader concern that many Republicans share. Romney often argues that President Obama and the Democrats are making America a government-dependent society.
Pam Malcolm agrees and it makes her furious. She went to a Romney rally outside Cleveland a few months ago.
PAM MALCOLM: I really don't want to help somebody who just decides, oh, well, I was raised on welfare, I can raise my children on welfare. I had a cousin who, she is a registered nurse, and the stories she told me about people coming in there and having babies just so they could get more on their food stamps and more on their welfare. It's like, no, I don't want to take care of those people.
SHAPIRO: Political scientist Martin Gilens, of Princeton, says there's another unspoken factor in all of this.
MARTIN GILENS: I do think a lot of it has to do with race.
SHAPIRO: Race. Gilens wrote the book "Why Americans Hate Welfare." His research shows that Americans think about welfare in a way that aligns pretty neatly with their perceptions about race. Gilens says it's impossible to know whether the Romney campaign decided to play into a racial strategy or whether it's an accident. But in a way, it doesn't matter.
GILENS: Regardless of what their conscious motivations are, the impact of these kinds of attacks on welfare and in particular on the perceived lack of work ethic among welfare recipients, plays out racially and taps into Americans' views of blacks and other racial stereotypes.
SHAPIRO: That's preposterous, says Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
ROBERT RECTOR: The left declared that welfare reform itself was racist. It's not a racial issue. It is an issue of extraordinary budgetary cost and an increasing level of dependence among all kinds of groups in our society.
SHAPIRO: So, happy anniversary, welfare reform. On your Sweet 16th, everyone is talking about you.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
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