Md. success with welfare counts little in new bill

Republicans in House would crack down on remaining nonworkers

April 10, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the six years since Congress directed the states to start moving welfare recipients off the dole and into full-time jobs, Maryland has been among the most successful. Its welfare caseload has dropped nearly 70 percent since 1995, compared with a national average of about 60 percent.

But the proportion of Marylanders still on welfare who are meeting the federal requirement that they engage in some work or related activity is nothing to boast about: just 6.3 percent. The national rate is 34 percent.

President Bush argues that success in reducing caseloads should no longer excuse Maryland and other states from failing to ensure that at least half their welfare recipients work - at least in community service or on-the-job training - in exchange for their benefits.

State officials across the country contend, though, that the proposed rules are so rigid that states would have to spend money to create menial, make-work jobs.

A better solution, these officials say, would be to provide child care and other aid that welfare clients need to obtain jobs that pay enough for them to become self-sufficient.

"We think they don't have it quite right," said Richard E. Larson of the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Denying the states credit for moving people into real jobs but rewarding them for keeping people in work-like activities, Larson said, is "kind of myopic."

House Republicans are scheduled today to introduce a Bush proposal for updating the welfare program that would both impose stricter work rules and tighten the standards for meeting them. They plan to speed the legislation - which would revise the 1996 landmark welfare law - through the House before Memorial Day.

"We are challenging the states to be even more efficient than they have been," said F. Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

"Our feeling is no one envisioned in 1996 that only 6.3 percent of welfare recipients would be involved in work or work-like activity," he said, referring to the Maryland figure.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, who is taking the lead for House Democrats in the welfare debate, says there is plenty of room for compromise if Republicans are willing.

Cardin's bill, the House Democratic alternative to Bush's plan, would continue to give states credit for moving welfare recipients into full-time jobs. It would also provide more money for child care, transportation and other support services for current and former recipients.

"The president's bill is not nearly as bad as a lot of Democrats feared it would be," Cardin said. "I think we could get a deal with the White House in 15 minutes. But I don't see any interest in that among the House Republicans."

In fact, House Republicans are happy to keep the welfare reform issue for themselves - and trumpet the widely acknowledged success of the 1996 overhaul in their re-election campaigns this year.

Rep. John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, observed yesterday that the 1996 law - which for the first time limited the amount of time that welfare recipients could receive cash aid and required those who do receive aid to work - was enacted over the objections and dire warnings of many Democrats.

Even so, Republicans had to share credit with Bill Clinton, the Democratic president who signed the bill into law after having vetoed two earlier versions. Now, they have a Republican president to help them reclaim the issue.

Cardin and state officials seeking changes in the Bush plan are likely to find a powerful ally, though, in Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a Republican who is chairman of the National Governors Association.

Engler, one of the leaders in the welfare reform drive of the 1990s, is a champion of giving states as much control as possible. At the same time, he is under pressure not to criticize Bush's plan directly.

"It's a great starting point," Doug Howard, director of Michigan's Family Assistance Agency, said, speaking for Engler.

Among the Bush plan's virtues, Howard said, is that it would not cut welfare funding, as some conservative Republicans advocated, to reflect a reduction in welfare rolls.

Howard observed that there will be many opportunities to tinker with the legislation, especially when it moves through the Senate, where bipartisan leaders of the Finance Committee are trying to produce their own version of the bill.

As for the work requirements, Howard said that Engler would probably seek to allow more activities to qualify and would push for exemptions for certain families with little prospect of meeting the work rules.

Under the 1996 law, states must ensure that a portion of their welfare recipients spend 30 hours a week at work or in work-like activities, including on-the-job training, community service, looking for work or attending classes designed to teach a job skill.

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