Undermining progress of welfare reform

House GOP: Hastert proposes taking $4.2 billion back from states to pay for Republican tax cut

August 13, 1999

QUESTION: When is a promise no longer a promise? Answer: When politicians switch their priorities.

Three years ago, Republicans in Congress were intent on reforming the nation's welfare system. They limited cash payments to five years, required recipients to work after two years and handed the states $16.4 billion in annual block grants to make it happen.

Now, those same Republicans want some of that money back. Why? Because welfare reform is working too well. House Republicans figure states can continue to cut the rolls with less money.

That's not true. But the GOP has a new priority, and it needs cash to pay for it: tax cuts.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert wants governors to refund their unspent welfare payments from the block grants. Some $4.2 billion is sitting in surplus because welfare caseloads have fallen faster than expected. That pool is being eyed by conservative Republicans as a way to help pay for the party's $792 billion tax cut.

Governors, with justification, are crying foul. Even Republican state executives are complaining about this effort to rewrite terms of the welfare-reform law. Why strip funds from a program that has shown such glowing results?

The nation's welfare rolls have dropped 40 percent in three years. (Maryland's caseload has been cut by 61 percent in four years.) Block grants are a major factor. They give states the flexibility to design effective programs that train welfare recipients, find them jobs and offer them support.

Yet the toughest -- and most expensive -- part lies ahead. Clearing the rolls of chronic welfare recipients, many of whom lack motivation or basic skills, won't be easy.

So far, one-third of those coming off welfare have returned. The bulk of former recipients end up in low-paying, service-sector jobs. They are the new working poor, barely able to make ends meet.

Clearly, a need exists for additional state efforts. More affordable child care programs are essential. So are more transportation assistance and enhanced skills training.

The job is not done. This is a long-term proposition.

Now is not the time for Republicans in Congress to undercut welfare reform efforts by the states.

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