IN 1996, around the time that President Clinton signed the law that ended welfare as we knew it, then-U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., warned it would be a disaster.

"You're talking about children on grates," he said.

It didn't happen, of course — not then, in a booming economy, when the welfare rolls plummeted and the law was declared a bipartisan success. And not now, five years into the worst economy since the Great Depression.

The fact that we aren't tripping over homeless children begging for food is probably because their mothers are doing everything they can to feed and shelter them. It almost certainly isn't because the work requirements and time limits included in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are providing a necessary push for lazy mothers to get off their behinds and get to work in jobs that are there just for the applying. Not only is poverty at record levels, but according to the census, 20.5 million Americans live in "deep poverty" (less than $9,500 for a family of three). Before welfare reform, two-thirds of children in poor families received welfare. Now only 27 percent do.

Think about it: with four to five job-seekers for every job, the competition for low-income jobs is fierce. People who once held higher-paying jobs are now applying, and taking, the kind of retail and low-skilled service jobs that used to be available to single mothers. In addition, many of the single mothers who might be eligible for TANF have problems that may be barriers to getting jobs: physical or mental illness, poor language skills or a lack of education.

Against this backdrop comes the controversy over a waiver program for TANF work requirements announced last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It would allow states more flexibility to see if they can better connect TANF recipients with work — for example, by allowing them more time for training.

(By the way, Pennsylvania is going in the exact opposite direction: Act 80, a law that took effect last month, imposes even stricter job-search requirements than before. Under the old law, once a single mother's application for TANF benefits — the royal sum of $407 a month for a family of three — was approved, she received child-care and transportation assistance and had to begin a job search. The new law mandates that a single mom apply for at least three jobs a week at the same time her application is pending — that is, before she gets any help on child care or bus fare.)

Mitt Romney, echoing other conservatives, has charged that the new HHS waiver policy shows that President Obama intends to "gut welfare reform," which Romney calls an "unprecedented success" bestowed on a grateful nation by "President Clinton and a bipartisan Congress."

Clinton called the ad untrue — the part about "gut," which it is. But the part about the "unprecedented success" is also not true. That's what we have to finally recognize if we want to actually do something about it.