House Adopts Stricter Work Rules for Poor
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a Republican welfare bill February 13 that would require states to impose stricter work requirements on poor parents, offer new money for marriage strengthening programs and freeze federal funding for cash assistance at 1996 levels.
The changes proposed by President Bush last year and approved by the House on Feb. 13 - would increase the required level of work for poor parents from 30 hours to 40 hours a week and would require states to increase the percentage of welfare recipients that hold jobs from 50 percent to 70 percent by 2008. Welfare recipients would no longer be able to count education as a "work activity" under this bill, although it would allow up to 16 hours a week for job training or drug treatment.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that increased work requirements would cost states between $8 billion and $11 billion to implement, but the GOP bill would freeze welfare spending at the 1996 level, about $16.5 billion a year, and would increase funding for childcare by only $2 billion.
Democrats and state officials have strongly opposed tightening work requirements without increasing money for childcare and support services. The House defeated a Democratic proposal that would have increased childcare by $15 billion.
Republicans said that the success of the landmark welfare reform law of 1996 has been due to the reforms they championed that emphasized putting poor people to work. Since the federal government ended welfare as an entitlement program by creating the Temporary assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant in 1996, states have reduced welfare rolls by 59 percent, from 12 million recipients to less than 5 million.
And despite a two year recession and the loss of over 180,000 jobs last year, welfare rolls continued to decline, falling by 6.2 percent in 2002, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported this week.
The House bill also includes $300 million a year in new money for states to create programs to promote healthy marriages, and $50 million in yearly subsidies to encourage sexual abstinence, provisions proposed by the president.
Congress also extended temporary funding for the welfare law that expired October 1, 2002, giving the Senate until the end of June to pass a new five-year bill. With a slim Republican majority in the Senate, it is not clear if they have enough votes to pass the House bill, but Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the new chairman of the Finance Committee, said that passing a bipartisan welfare bill was a "high priority."
Senate action will likely come too late to help lawmakers in 18 states prepare for new welfare requirements. Legislative sessions in those states end in April, and six of those states - Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, and Texas- will not reconvene until 2005.
"We're very concerned that on top of state deficits, states will have to cut social programs even more because they won't know what to expect from the federal government," said Sheri Steisel, human services director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The measure is nearly identical to a GOP bill that died in the Senate last year after Congress adjourned without renewing the 1996 welfare law. The bill passed the House largely on party lines after Republicans pushed the measure to a vote without sending it to committee for debate, which sparked protest from Democrats.
U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), ranking member of the House Ways and Means subcommittee, which oversees welfare reform, said it was "extremely irresponsible" for Republicans to use their majority to pass a welfare reform bill that "sabotages the 1996 welfare reform effort by making it much harder for states to provide education and job training to welfare recipients."
"States may be forced to cut services for low-income families to pay for these new, unfunded welfare requirements," Cardin said, adding that because states face their worst budget crises in 50 years, "Unfunded mandates from the federal government are the last thing Congress should be doing."
U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Penn) said that "the Democratic alternative does not provide the work incentives that recipients need to become independent," of cash assistance.
Although the Bush Administration does not dispute CBO's estimate that stricter work requirements could cost states up to $11 billion, HHS Assistant Secretary Wade F. Horn said that because of the dramatic decline in welfare caseloads, the question was not should states get more money, but should they get less.
"The debate was not how much additional money should we put in the (TANF) block grant, the debate a year ago was should we or shouldn't we cut the block grant, now that there is less than half the case load remaining on welfare," Horn said. "We resisted the calls to cut the block grant, and in fact fully funded the block grant despite the reductions in caseloads."