Bush proposes tightening Clinton's welfare reforms

More work hours, marriage incentives

February 27, 2002|By David L. Greene and Kate Shatzkin | David L. Greene and Kate Shatzkin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush proposed yesterday to change the landmark 1996 welfare law to toughen work requirements for recipients and to subsidize programs that encourage the poor to marry. The plan would also extend a ban that bars legal immigrants from receiving aid for five years.

The reforms enacted under President Bill Clinton - which ended welfare as a permanent safety net and for the first time forced recipients to find jobs - succeeded, Bush said, but work remains.

"We ended welfare as we've known it, yet it is not a post-poverty America," the president said at a Catholic church in a low-income section of Washington.

"Child poverty is too high. Too many families are strained and fragile and broken. Too many Americans still have not found work and the purpose it brings."

Bush offered the opening salvo in a debate that will likely rage for months as Congress squabbles over how to reauthorize the 1996 law, which expires this year.

At the heart of his plan is a requirement that 50 percent of welfare recipients in every state work 40 hours a week, up from 30 hours under current law. By 2007, the requirement would increase to 70 percent.

"Work is the pathway to independence and self-respect," Bush said.

Critics attacked the plan, arguing that the stiffer work requirements were unrealistic during a recession - a time when even people who are not poor have trouble finding jobs.

They also contended that requiring more work hours would threaten states' ability to create innovative programs, some of which have allowed recipients to work fewer hours temporarily as they train for higher-paying, more permanent jobs.

"I have trouble understanding how they can make a proposal that flies in the face of everything we've learned from the last five years," said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor who was a welfare adviser to Clinton before resigning to protest the 1996 reforms, which he said punished the poor.

Welfare recipients, Edelman said, "have basically done everything asked of them" since 1996. Bush, he added, "wants to come along as if people have been behaving in ways that were not cooperative."

Two Republican congressmen, Reps. John A. Boehner of Ohio and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California, released a joint statement last night that said Bush's plan "would put even more Americans on the path to self-reliance and independence."

"It would help place welfare recipients," they said, "on long-term career paths by combining real work with programs to help them advance, increase their income and improve their quality of life and the well-being of their children."

Most federal welfare money goes to the states in the form of block grants. The president proposed to freeze funding for those grants at the current $16.6 billion a year. That amount is enough, Bush said, to "continue a determined assault on poverty in this country."

But some analysts said the funding would fall well short, especially given that the administration did not propose to boost funding to keep pace with inflation. If anything, some analysts said, states need more money now than in the past five years to pay for child care and job-training programs, as more people move into jobs.

"This is really a budget-driven package - it's `how can we make the system work better and not spend much money,' " said Kent Weaver, co-director of the Brookings Institution's Welfare Reform and Beyond Initiative.

Echoing an argument of many critics, Weaver said Bush did not focus enough on helping a subset of the welfare population who, because of drug addiction or other circumstances, have never gotten jobs.

"When you weaken a safety net on families and push them to work, those who can work will be better off," Weaver said. "But for those who can't or won't work - and mostly it's can't - you're talking about people who are worse off."

The president's plan would retain most aspects of the 1996 law, the centerpiece of which forced welfare recipients off the rolls if they failed to find work within five years. Many Democrats warned then that the reforms were an assault on a vital federal program. But even some of the law's harshest critics have acknowledged its success.

Since 1996, for example, the number of Americans receiving cash aid has fallen 56 percent. The number of children living in poverty has reached its lowest level since 1978, according to figures released by the White House yesterday and not disputed by critics.

Some analysts point out, though, that many of those developments came during a booming economy, and they warn that the recession could deepen poverty and limit job opportunities available to welfare recipients.

The president proposed yesterday to retain a portion of the 1996 law that permits states to continue offering benefits to 20 percent of the welfare population that they deem unable to find work.

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