Waiting for welfare

August 07, 2005

AFTER THREE YEARS of debate and 10 temporary extensions of the federal welfare reform law, congressional lawmakers still have not renewed the law because of disagreement over child care funding, a key component of getting more women off public assistance and into the work force.

And now lawmakers inclined to be the most generous with child care funds seem to be losing ground, as Congress combs through such benefit programs looking for places to save money.

This is unfortunate for thousands of mostly single mothers who have left welfare for jobs, and for those trying to leave public assistance rolls, only to be hampered by child care problems. The availability and affordability of child care are important determinants of whether these women will be successful.

State officials, resisting changes that would impose stiffer work requirements on welfare recipients without additional child care help, have been relatively content to continue operating under the terms of current law. But now the delay is impairing their ability to design welfare reform plans and craft policies to help hard-to-employ recipients find jobs.

Meanwhile, the number of children living in low-income households with unemployed parents grew to 4 million, a 1 million increase since 2000, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That signals that the marked decline in this population, attributed to people leaving welfare, has reversed course. In Maryland, about 45,000 children live in poor households headed by jobless parents.

The House, which has twice passed welfare reform updates only to see them die in the Senate, plans next month to include its version of the measure in a broader must-pass budget bill that can't be filibustered.

That will likely put greater pressure on members of the Senate Finance Committee who want to increase child care funding by $6 billion over five years instead of adopting the House proposal to add only $1 billion extra that basically just keeps pace with inflation. In order to prevail at the higher amount, supporters would have to find savings from other benefit programs.

Almost a decade after the 1996 legislation became law, welfare reform has turned the debunked phrase "a culture of poverty" on its head, transforming single mothers who'd spent decades on welfare into working women, and blunting the possibility that their children might become adult recipients. Despite its problems and challenges, the law has proved effective in moving people once mired in poverty on the path to self-sufficiency.

Congressional lawmakers should show their commitment to welfare reform by renewing the program quickly with enough of the essential tools to ensure it will continue to be successful.

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