Work requirements

July 16, 2002

THE U.S. SENATE Finance Committee passed a smarter welfare reform bill recently, but -- through no fault of its own -- may have worsened prospects for turning it into law.

The committee measure provides more money to subsidize the child care expenses of welfare families moving into the world of work. Its figure of $5.5 billion is still too low, but it's a billion more than the inferior House-passed bill.

Senators also would allow new workers to use more hours in training and education programs to meet the bill's increased work requirements. If the objective is to move people out of poverty -- not just off welfare -- training ought not to be discouraged.

But Republicans warn that the Senate version's $1 billion increase in the child care budget will invite a presidential veto; it's no secret that Mr. Bush favors the House bill. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota counters by threatening to hold up the legislation until more money is offered for child care.

The current welfare reform law expires this fall after five years of unexpected success. So if this political maneuvering continues, the deadline for reauthorization will be missed. Current law could be continued under a temporary financing agreement, but the two sides risk loss of momentum on which they should be building. Tighter work requirements are a reasonable demand, but failing to provide enough child care and diminishing the value of training are not.

The current discussion contains echoes of earlier welfare debates, in which the poor were lashed for clinging to the dole at the expense of the taxpayer and the future of their children. Surely that political hobby horse should be retired.

With admirable will, many people on welfare stepped away from dependency and freed themselves from the deadening limits of welfare. They took jobs that were, in many cases, little improvement in dollar terms over welfare. They did it because the new law required them to but also, one hopes, because they recognized a more promising path.

An enlightened Congress should realize that those still on welfare are, almost by definition, the least employable. They have fewer skills and more limiting health or educational barriers. They need child care and they need training that will make their move into the workplace successful. Low-wage workers hover around the $5.15 minimum wage, and child care costs can consume an overwhelming portion of those earnings.

State authorities say the proposed new work requirements could force them to transfer recipients out of promising programs into ones that count in the federal reform arithmetic. Cash penalties -- amounting to as much as $33 million a year in Maryland -- could be imposed if the House bill's new restrictions remain in the final bill. Flexibility has been a hallmark of the reform's initial successes and ought to be safeguarded.

The Senate Finance Committee measure moved forward with an appropriate acronym: WORK, for the Work Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids Act. Now the Senate, the House and the president should hold themselves to the same standard.

They can do their work by passing a fair and reasonable bill on time.

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