April 11, 2004

WITH A show of election-year bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate last month stood up for poor families -- if only for a few moments. The senators added $6 billion for child care to their version of the law to renew the nation's welfare reform program, to ensure that the neediest children are in quality day care while their mothers work or receive training.

Currently only about one in seven eligible children benefits from a child care subsidy, so this was a big step in the right direction.

The vote on the child care amendment should have set the stage for passage of the full Senate welfare reform package to renew the 1996 law for five years, including the $16.5 billion-a-year Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. It would require that states put more of their welfare recipients to work for more hours, and would earmark funds to promote family stability and marriage. Plus, it would help states by freeing them to shift uncommitted cash assistance dollars to child care needs; with welfare caseloads declining, more than $2.3 billion was unspent as of last September, according to the Administration for Children and Families. But the shouting wasn't over. Senate Democrats piled on more freight: amendments including a proposal to increase the nation's minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.

That was like hitching an RV to a Vespa. The minimum-wage question alone proved unwieldy and too contentious to be anything but a drag on momentum. Now progress on welfare reform has stalled.

Certainly, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy made valid points on behalf of more than 2 million Americans who earn minimum wage or less, and the estimated 7 million altogether whose hourly pay is tied to the federal rate. These include many families moving off welfare, whose earnings fall well below the federal poverty line of $18,850 for a family of four. Most cannot make ends meet without additional government aid such as food stamps, child care, transportation and housing subsidies, and the earned income tax credit. The federal minimum wage hasn't increased since 1997.

A living wage is worth fighting for.

But so is the Senate version of the welfare reform renewal law, which, with its additional flexibility and funding for child care, now is superior to the House version.

The sooner the Senate can get on with its work, the sooner the arm-wrestling of reconciling the two versions can get under way.

Everyone loses if, in the end, the best Congress can do this session is pass yet another temporary extension, instead of seizing this opportunity to advance measurable improvements.

For the greater good, it's worth separating the minimum wage and welfare issues now -- and finishing one fight before taking on another. There's still time to move on welfare reform.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.