States Unhappy with Bush's Welfare Initiative
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
While President Bush urged Congress this week to quickly extend the expired 1996 welfare reform law, state officials criticized the president for not revising proposals that will impose stricter work mandates that they say states cannot meet during an economic downturn.
Bush made it clear in a White House speech that the administration has no intention of reshaping the proposals it made to the welfare law one year ago, which would require states to have 70 percent of their welfare recipients working 40-hours a week by 2007.
Up to 16 hours could be met by attending school, job-training or other approved activities, but the president's provisions would call for no additional child care subsidies to help states put more welfare mothers to work.
Last year, the House passed a bill closely reflecting the White House initiative, but the Democrat controlled Senate developed a different bill in committee that never made it to the floor for a vote. The law expired in September, but Congress extended funding for public assistance through March 31 through a stopgap spending measure.
"Last year the House of Representatives passed legislation that would build on the successes of the 1996 welfare reform law," said Bush. "I'm calling upon both houses to get after it."
Bush said he supported freezing funding for basic assistance, welfare-to-work programs and child care at $17 billion a year for the next five years, without adjusting for inflation.
Critics of the administration said that freezing welfare funding at current levels would result in significantly less money over the next five years and will make it impossible for states to meet the president's expensive work mandates.
But Bush argued in his speech that since caseloads have been reduced by 54 percent since 1996, states would now have twice the money to spend on the nearly 2 million people still on welfare.
"In 1996, states were spending $7,000 per family to help people get to work. Under this budget request the number will be $16,000 per family. If $7,000 was good enough in 1996, seems like $16,000 will be enough into 2003 to help people get ahead," said Bush.
Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a left leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., said that the president's claim was a "gross distortion of the facts."
"This is misleading because it ignores the more than one million people, primarily in low-income working families, who do not receive cash welfare benefits but do receive child care, transportation, or other such assistance funded with block grant dollars so that they can get and keep jobs," said Greenstein.
Many state officials said that the president has failed to take into account the severe fiscal crisis states are now in and the rise in unemployment that will make it difficult for welfare recipients to find jobs.
The deficit in Bush's home state of Texas is estimated to be $10 to $16 billion over the next two years. Democratic state representative Garnet Coleman said that the state has already cut $20 million from programs that support welfare recipients, and the state faces deeper cuts this legislative session.
"The issue is, the unemployment rate is going up and the need for jobs is increasing and it's going to be tough as it is to keep people working, let alone meet (the president's) requirements, and this isn't rhetoric, it's the reality- you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip," said Coleman.
Michigan has had work requirements as strict as those proposed by the president, and the state has experienced some of the largest overall declines in welfare roles. One state official said Bush's proposal to set high standards for work hours and participation was well intended, but that the stringent penalties for failing to meet those standards were too severe for states because of the economic downturn.
"Even though we have pretty stringent work requirements here in Michigan, what the president is proposing may be difficult for us to meet. If the economy continues to be depressed, then we'll have some difficulty in finding job opportunities for some of our customers. We want to see as much flexibility as possible provided to the states," Maureen Sorbet, a spokesperson for the Michigan Family Independence Agency, told Stateline.org.
Another concern the states raise is that budget cuts have resulted in large reductions in staff, making it harder for welfare agencies to adequately serve all recipients.
The Illinois department of human services has laid-off 360 employees and lost an additional 1,100 through early-retirement incentives last fall, resulting in a 26 percent reduction of staff, said Anne Irving, director of public policy in the Chicago branch of the American Federations of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a national labor union for public-service employees.
As a result, social workers in some Illinois counties now handle caseloads of over 1,000 recipients.
"To the degree that the Feds want to increase (case worker's) workload, it's just going to really make a nightmare situation for our workers and it's bad for the clients," Irving said.
Under the administration's welfare proposals, states face stiff economic sanctions if they fall short of the work mandates. These penalties include a forfeiture of 5 percent of a state's TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) grant, and a 5 percent increase in the state's matching rate for welfare, which is set at 75 percent of the state's welfare spending in 1996.