House OKs stricter welfare work rules

`Tough love' bill would up hours required, promote marriage and abstinence

May 17, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Trying to build on 1996 reforms requiring welfare recipients to work, a divided House voted yesterday to toughen rules that Republicans say have given dignity to millions of poor Americans and helped them break a cycle of dependence.

The 229-197 vote to update national welfare policy went nearly along party lines and amounts to an opening bid on legislation that is more likely to be fashioned in the Senate, where a bipartisan compromise with less rigid work rules and more child care for working mothers is taking shape.

The update the House supports is modeled on a proposal by President Bush. He praised the House for approving legislation "that will help millions of Americans realize a life of hope, dignity and independence. I commend the House for moving quickly and now urge the Senate to act on behalf of those who seek a better life."

For House GOP leaders, the vote offered an opportunity to savor a political victory over Democratic critics who predicted in 1996, when the welfare system was overhauled, that pushing mostly single young mothers with children off assistance would mean disaster.

"Many condemned our efforts to reform welfare, calling us misguided, misinformed and in many cases, much worse," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said. "But we were right six years ago, and we are right today. Since 1996, nearly 3 million children have been lifted out of poverty and have been given the hope of a brighter future."

The updated measure would boost work requirements from 30 hours a week to 40 hours by 2007, increase funding for child care assistance by almost 50 percent, and include $300 million for experiments aimed at promoting marriage and an additional $50 million to promote sexual abstinence before marriage.

House Democrats said the sharp declines in the welfare rolls do not prove that former beneficiaries have been lifted out of poverty. In opposing Bush and the Republicans, Democrats proposed that welfare mothers be given more opportunity to increase their education and job skills rather than forcing them into low-wage, make work jobs.

Democrats also argued that child care money should be at least doubled because states have long waiting lists because of insufficient funding.

"We have to look at what happens to those families," said Rep. Patsy T. Mink, a Hawaii Democrat. "Many of those mothers who work are working for minimum wage. They still live in poverty. Why would we want to make it tougher on them?"

Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County broke ranks with her three fellow Republicans in the Maryland delegation to vote against the bill. All four Maryland Democrats also voted against the GOP measure.

The Democratic alternative, which would maintain the 30-hour work requirement, allow up to two years for schooling, substantially boost child care money and permit states to once again provide benefits to legal immigrants, was rejected along party lines 222-198.

But a plan similar to the Democrats' is being developed by a centrist coalition in the almost equally divided Senate.

"We think our plan has the necessary balance," said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat and leader of the coalition.

House GOP leaders know the bill finally enacted may differ from the one passed yesterday, but they are eager to send their members home next week for the Memorial Day recess so they can boast to voters that they have taken another step to reduce welfare rolls, which have been cut by more than half since 1996.

"What we need is tough love," said Rep. Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican. "This bill may not be perfect, but it is a significant reform building on what we started in 1996 to restore public assistance to its original purpose - a temporary safety net for those in need."

Among the chief complaints by the bill's critics is that it limits state flexibility, which many view as a key to success in welfare reform.

In Maryland, for example, the most recent statistics show that less than 7 percent of those on welfare rolls are working - despite a requirement that at least 50 percent of them meet the minimum of 30 hours a week.

But Maryland is given a pass under the 1996 law because it has dropped its welfare caseload by nearly 70 percent since 1995. States are given credit against the work requirement for reductions in their welfare rolls.

The Republican bill would tighten those requirements by insisting that at least 70 percent of recipients engage in work or work-related activity - challenging the states "to be even more efficient than they have been," F. Wade Horn, an administration official, said when the bill was unveiled this spring.

House Democrats sought to preserve state freedoms to meet the overall goal of reducing welfare rolls without forcing them to spend money on make-work jobs.

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