Working solution

February 13, 2004

THE SAME administration that's atwitter over programs to promote responsible fatherhood and healthy marriage among the poor turns a cold shoulder to the neediest working moms and their children.

It apparently hasn't occurred to some lawmakers that improving child care and temporary assistance programs also helps foster the kind of stability that sustains families.

Marriage has many acknowledged benefits, but America won't conquer poverty by marrying off the poor. What will make a difference is equipping any who are ambitious and eligible for help with the tools and resources to advance to gainful employment - one of the goals of successful welfare reform programs.

Yet President Bush's latest budget request adds no new money for family assistance grants or child care. And for going on two years now, Congress has been too bogged down in politics to renew legislation supporting the nation's welfare reforms. After multiple extensions, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program now is extended in its current form until March 31.

Many observers believe a decision is unlikely this session, but it's long past time to break this stalemate. Another extension isn't needed; neither is a rumored end-run attempt to cut the program.

The Senate version of the bill is, by far, preferable to one passed by the House last year, even though it, too, boosts the number of hours each week that poor working mothers must put in on the job without sufficiently increasing funds for day care that frees them to leave home. The House bill would require aid recipients with children under age 6 to work 34 hours a week instead of 20; the Senate bill would give full credit for 24 hours of work.

Of all the thorny issues outstanding, the one that holds the greatest promise of moving a compromise along is increasing money for child care. Many of these mothers don't earn enough at their low-skill, low-wage jobs to afford increased day care expenses - yet another reason that welfare reform's next frontier must be increasing job training and education.

Both the Senate and House versions call for a $200 million a year increase in child care funding - $1 billion over five years. However, that won't keep up with inflation, putting greater pressure on the states, many of which last year were cutting child care benefits to help ride out their own economic slumps.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, will offer an amendment to increase child care funds by another $5 billion over five years. Her colleagues should rush to her support, and move on welfare reform.

Surely a nation that can afford a tax cut for its wealthy can help mothers starting out at the lowest rung of the work force, and an administration that says it supports healthy families can't be blind to the need for stabilizing family cornerstones.

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