States Urge Congress to Extend Welfare Funding
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, the pretentious official title of the sweeping welfare law changes approved in 1996, technically expired Sept. 30 after Congress failed to pass a promised $16.5 billion five-year reauthorization. A three-month extension will provide assistance to low-income families through December.
With only a week left before Congress is scheduled to adjourn, many experts expect reauthorization to be postponed for at least one year. In the meantime, they say public money for public assistance to the needy is likely to be kept alive by a series of stopgap measures that make it hard for states to administer the program efficiently.
Welfare officials say a multi-year commitment to federal funding is critical to ensure that welfare programs continue to function smoothly, particularly in states with two year budget cycles.
"(State budgets) are in the tank," says Elaine Ryan, director of government affairs at the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA). "And you have six states that only come into session every other year and 19 states that have two-year budgeting."
Legislatures in Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, and Texas convene in 2003 to plan budgets to last until their next session in 2005.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the National Governors Association (NGA) and APHSA are all asking Congress and the Bush Administration for a three-year continuation of present law, which they say is necessary to maintain the successes of welfare reform.
Since 1996, the program has tripled the number of welfare recipients who work in exchange for their benefits, and cut welfare caseloads by nearly 60 percent nationwide. States are now focusing on the hardest cases to wean from public assistance, many of whom suffer from substance abuse, domestic violence, learning disabilities or lack adequate childcare.
"What states need as they're thinking of embarking or expanding on new programs for the hard to employ- and looking to see what programs to keep and what to reduce in these tough budget times- is certainty in terms of what federal funding and programs will look like in the future," said Jack Tweedie, a welfare analyst at NCSL.
States are dealing with budget shortfalls that will cause an estimated cumulative deficit of $58 billion in the current fiscal year. California Rep. Dion Aroner, a Democrat who co-chairs the Assembly's committee on human services, says her state was forced to cut half a billion dollars from its welfare program this year.
"Without having some hope, some support from the federal government on an ongoing basis ... there's no sense of security any longer at the state level that the federal government is a partner with us like it used to be, and that's very scary," Aroner says.