Waiting for Washington

July 11, 2004

WHILE CONGRESS procrastinates, many programs for the working poor wait in limbo. State by state, officials who run welfare reform programs are saying their ability to plan for the future is hampered as lawmakers let the clock run down to Election Day.

No one expects lawmakers to push ahead on reauthorizing the nation's main welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), at least until voters choose the next president -- but they should.

It takes a certain arrogance to put partisan politics before the needs of the poorest citizens, who have done as asked of them -- they've taken jobs that too often don't cover their bills, they've enrolled in training programs to gain new skills, and by and large they've embraced a work ethic instead of dawdling between welfare checks. They may not yet be self-sufficient, but TANF's $16.5 billion aids their transition to stability.

So now who's dawdling? Proposed blueprints for the next five years of welfare reform await action, but election-year partisanship, by Democrats and Republicans alike, is impeding progress.

Since major pieces of the law governing welfare reform were set to expire in September 2002, the House twice has passed bills that would require states to put more of their poor to work and to increase working parents' hours. Senators haven't budged on their version of the bills: If they'd adopt one, a conference committee could get busy ironing out the substantive differences.

That's not too much to ask, when you consider the consequences of the lawmakers' inaction: After two years of uncertainty, welfare programs across the country are feeling their way in the dark, with the fate of funding and program guidelines unclear. Several states reportedly have had to cut the size of families' grants, put new programs on hold, or delay long-range planning. Some predict they'll have to cut other aid programs to cover child care expenses, expected to rise as work hours increase. Others want to adopt or create job training programs to help reduce caseloads, but can't because their plans are tied to bills still in limbo. And given the outlook for state or federal budgets, there's reasonable fear of future cuts to allocations.

Maryland welfare program officials say they risk wasting money arranging contracts that could be made obsolete by proposed changes to the law. But they are forging ahead, assuming that their all-time-low cash-assistance caseload of about 69,000 will have to be cut further, if current proposals become law. They've begun assigning longer work hours and looking for ways to provide for the resulting child care needs. If they don't start making the changes and lay the groundwork now, they fear that when Congress gets around to enacting inevitable program changes, Maryland could be caught short and face proposed financial penalties.

This is no way to run a government. The citizens are doing their part to ensure welfare reform's continued success. Now it's Congress' turn to get to work.

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