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Rick Santorum, Pushing Welfare Reform In 1994, Invoked New Deal Jobs Program

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WASHINGTON -- Defending his push for welfare reform during a campaign stop in 1994, then-Rep. Rick Santorum, now running for president as a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, favorably compared the welfare effort to an icon of the New Deal.

On the stump in Carlisle, Pa., Santorum invoked President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, which provided government jobs to the unemployed during the Great Depression. The program has since become a political proxy for how aggressively one thinks the government should respond to economic crisis, with conservatives comparing the WPA to socialism.

Santorum referenced the WPA in a speech he made at an April 1, 1994, event, according to records maintained by his opponent, incumbent Sen. Harris Wofford, and obtained by The Huffington Post. Video and audio transcripts of Santorum events were produced for the Wofford campaign.

Santorum, who was helping lead the effort to reform welfare, advocated for essentially reviving the WPA as part of that reform.

He argued for requiring recipients to work after two years on the rolls. He said that once recipients had received two years' worth of public assistance, more aid should be contingent on their getting some kind of job. "Now you gotta work 35 hours a week," he said in the April 1994 speech.

What if the person couldn't find work? Santorum had a big-government solution -- one that he compared favorably to the old WPA program.

"Thirty-five hours a week -- in most cases, it'll be, y'know, public sector," Santorum explained. "Sort of like the, you remember the, I don't see anybody here old enough to remember this, but they had the WPA programs, the, y'know ... during the Depression."

Back then, the Santorum tracker caught the irony, writing that this was "very unlike RS to invoke the memory of a Democrat."

The Santorum campaign this week did not respond to a request for comment.

The idea of including a work component in welfare reform had bipartisan fans in the 1990s. Ultimately, the bill President Bill Clinton signed in 1996 left it up to the states to decide what requirements to impose on their residents receiving welfare. Most states did not take up Santorum's idea of a revamped WPA.

"A state could set up exactly what Santorum described if they wanted," explained Ron Haskins, who as a high-ranking congressional staffer worked with Santorum on welfare reform in the '90s. "Most of them did not. They really went for the 'let's try to get people off welfare.'"

Wisconsin and New York City were the notable exceptions that implemented a version of Santorum's idea, to mixed results.

Douglas Besharov, a professor with the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has done extensive research on welfare and welfare reform. According to Besharov, the jobs under those programs was legit, but states found the programs too difficult to implement.

"It didn't work hardly anywhere because most of the jobs that you would put people in are government-type jobs," Besharov said. "And government unions are not very happy. It's a massive undertaking to put people to work. It's really quite complicated to do."

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