Credulous fact-checkers fall for 20% scam
Why the Fact-Checkosphere is failing: So, as I understand it, this year the MSM will righteously strike back against “Post-Truth Politics” through rigorous fact-checking, followed by a manly, non-balanced, yet authoritative calling out of transgressors for the liars that they are. James Fallows and Jay Rosen, among others, have heralded this great new day. One problem, of course, is the ease–rather, the constant temptation–of presenting debatable policy issues as right/wrong fact issues, a problem emphasized by dissenter Ben Smith yesterday. Another is the way what Smith calls “the new pseudo science of fact-checks” opens up a giant sluice for the introduction of concealed bias, especially when “facts” are fed to the fact-checkers by the competing campaigns.
But a simpler problem is that the MSM’s fact-checkers often don’t know what they’re talking about. For example, the oft-cited CNN-“fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:
The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare rolls as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.”
Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.
I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.
But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all. Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare. **
It’s understandable that MSM reporters and non-profit checkers–some of whom may have been given only a few hours to get to the bottom of a subject they’ve never written about before–would easily fall for a bit of bureaucratic fakery. Do they have to be so self-righteous about it?
Update: Defending Obama’s waivers on Meet the Press today, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel relies heavily on the bogus “20%” requirement. [Relevant clip is about 10:56 in]. … You have to suspect that what Rahm really thinks is: “Why am I talking about welfare? This #&*!$)! would never have made it out of HHS if I was still in the White House.” …
**–There has been a push by Democrats to get more people onto welfare during the post-2008 recession and semi-recovery.