State Officials Uneasy With Bush's Welfare Changes

 

Alabama, Michigan and the District of Columbia split $75 million in extra federal welfare funds last year for achieving the largest decreases in out-of-wedlock births and abortion rates between 1996 and 1999.

But the program that brought this windfall may soon disappear because President Bush's welfare reform reauthorization plan does away with bonuses to states that do the best job of reducing illegitimacy and medically terminated pregnancies.

Instead, states will share $200 million to carry out demonstration projects that encourage stronger families and marriage.

That means Alabama's Unwed Pregnancy Prevention Program, situated in the state's Department of Public Health, is likely to close its doors. "The loss in money will change everything," says director Phyllis Gilchrist.

Alabama officials aren't the only ones worried about some of the Bush Administration's proposed welfare changes, which are incorporated in legislation that would extend public assistance to the poor for another five years. The legislation is currently in committee, with U.S. House and Senate floor action expected later this year.

Lawmakers from California and North Dakota say they're bothered by the plan's increased work mandate, and other critics say Bush's proposal fails to provide enough money to help those on welfare pay for childcare while they're working.

A prominent state legislator who heads a powerful state lobbying group is taking a we-can-work-this-out approach. "The President's (plan) is certainly consistent with many of the things we have been advocating," New York Republican Stephen Saland, who chairs his state's Senate Children and Families Committee, told STATELINE.ORG .

Saland is President of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a group that will lobby Congress and the federal government on welfare reform reauthorization.

But welfare experts fear Bush's plan, if adopted as is, would substantially limit state flexibility. It "doesn't give us sufficient time to help the hard-to-serve," says NCSL analyst Sheri Steisel.

Another big worry for states is that new work requirements don't take into account the realities of current welfare reform, she says. Under the Bush plan, state work participation requirements will jump from 50 to 70 percent of people on welfare.

The rates don't give states credit for people who leave welfare when they find a job or for people who are working part-time. "From media coverage, you could make the wrong assumption that nobody is working and that's not right. Some states have an effective work rate of zero," because officials have moved people off welfare and into jobs, Steisel says.

"Moving from 50 to 70 percent in different parts of the country will pose some problems," says North Dakota Rep. Ken Svedjan.

Svedjan, a Republican, says nearly 60 percent of the people on welfare in his state are Native Americans who live far away from available employment. "When you take a look at the locations of Indian reservations and the fact there's no work there, to increase the work requirement presents problems for us here in North Dakota," he says.

California Rep. Dion Aroner also sees problems. "If the feds now change the rules of the game and increase work standards, that means decreased flexibility for the states. And it ... will put incredible strain on the system given we're getting no new money," Democrat Aroner says.

Lawmakers and state officials are already feeling the effects of having more people on the rolls. Washington Gov. Gary Locke last month shifted welfare funds within his state's budget after figures showed jumps in the number of families signed up of 500 in October, 450 in November and 1,800 in December.

The number of Indiana residents getting welfare checks jumped 23 percent in the last six months of 2001one of the nation's biggest increases, The Indianapolis Star reported. Oregon officials say the state's welfare caseload climbed by nearly 1,500 cases during the fourth quarter of last year to 17,724, the highest level in two years.

State lawmakers must now not only grapple with the worst budget shortfalls they've seen in years but also must fall in line with new work mandates on even more welfare recipients. "States have nowhere to go. We don't see this as an example of a state-federal partnership," NCSL's Steisel says.

 
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