Welfare Bill Drawing Strong Opposition

By Ori Nir

Published September 19, 2003, issue of September 19, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — A welfare-reform bill endorsed by the Bush administration and working its way through the Republican-controlled Congress is drawing fierce opposition from a coalition of Jewish organizations.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a version of the bill last week, which would increase work requirements and cut child-care funding for welfare recipients. The House of Representatives passed a similar measure in February, which included deeper cuts and even more stringent work rules.

Social-service advocates have made defeating, or significantly altering, the welfare legislation their top legislative priority.

“The Senate bill is somewhat better than the House bill, yet we are urging our member-organization supporters to contact their senators to further improve this bill,” said Reva Price, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a policy coordinating body representing 13 national Jewish organizations and 123 local community relations councils in North America.

The JCPA has made fighting the GOP-backed welfare bill a centerpiece of the group’s recently launched campaign to protect human-service programs from budget cuts. Council officials say the bill would insufficiently fund child-care programs, impose overly harsh work requirements on welfare recipients, fail to provide adequate vocational training and deny states flexibility in dealing with low-income immigrants.

The House and Senate bills would reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which was enacted as part of the celebrated welfare reform legislation passed by the Clinton administration in 1996. It ended nearly six decades of guaranteed assistance to poor families under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The new law imposed work requirements on welfare recipients, gave states greater flexibility in doling out federal dollars and opened the way to programs encouraging marriage.

The law, which provides block grants to states for welfare, was set to expire in September 2002. Unable to reach an agreement on reauthorization, Congress has repeatedly used a continuing resolution to extend the 1996 welfare law, providing time to negotiate a new, reformed measure, drawing on the experiences of the last five years.

Given the complexities of the issue and the myriad controversies surrounding it — particularly in relation to child-care funding — experts say this legislation may again be held up in the Senate, as pressure mounts on legislators to introduce changes.

The House bill was strongly criticized by liberal groups for toughening the work requirements and stepping up efforts to promote marriage. Under the House version of the bill, states are required to increase work requirements by 2008 to 40 hours per week from the current 20 to 35 hours. In addition, the House bill requires that by 2008 70% of recipients will be working at any given time. House Republicans, defending their legislation, point out that liberals opposed welfare reform in 1996, predicting deeper poverty. Instead, the welfare-to-work strategy reduced poverty and shrunk unemployment, they said. Congressman Wally Herger, a California Republican, defended the House bill as “encouraging more work, less dependence, stronger families and less poverty.” Herger chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, which has jurisdiction over welfare reform.

Under the Senate version, the hourly requirement would increase from 30 to 39 for most two-parent families, 30 to 34 for single parents with children ages six years and over, and 20 to 24 for single parents with children under the age of six.

The work requirements are intended to encourage people to work, thereby reducing welfare costs. But such measures are not cost-free. According to the Congressional Budget Office, states will have to pay between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion dollars over the coming five years to meet the higher work requirements. The cost is both a result of supplying and running work programs for recipients and subsidizing child-care costs of working parents.

While the JCPA and its allies have been lobbying for an additional $11.25 billion in child care, the Senate bill offers additional child-care funding of only $1 billion over five years. “This is so little that hundreds of thousands of children in low-income, working families are projected to lose access to child-care assistance in the coming years,” said Sharon Parrott, an expert on welfare at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. States have been augmenting the growing child-care costs associated with welfare programs by using unspent federal grants from previous years, but those have been exhausted, she said.

The center estimates that 430,000 children would lose access to child-care subsidies by 2008, Parrott said. She noted that access to child-care assistance is already shrinking, mainly because of the states’ financial crisis. More than half of the states have instituted cutbacks in their child-care programs over the last three years. In 24 states, child-care assistance is limited to low-income working families already receiving help, according to General Accounting Office data.

Jewish activists, in concert with a broad coalition of social-services advocacy groups, are expected to back an amendment that Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican, plans to introduce on the Senate floor, which will “significantly” increase the bill’s child-care funding.

Social-service advocates are also attempting to increase funding for vocational training and the number of hours that such activities can be counted toward satisfying the bill’s work requirements. According to the Senate version, such activities would count as work hours only for six months. After six months, they would count only if the recipient also participated in standard work activities for at least 24 hours a week — a bar that some observers say is too high for many welfare recipients.

Another major area of concern for social-service advocates, and Jewish groups in particular, is the issue of services to legal immigrants. Both the House and Senate versions would continue the ban on providing benefits to most legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for less than five years. The ban applies not only to cash assistance but also to services, including English-as-a-Second-Language classes and job training. A JCPA “action alert” calls members to urge senators to restore benefits to legal immigrants.

Jewish groups have generally steered clear of the debate over elements of the House and Senate versions that attempt to promote marriage. The Senate bill would make $100 million per year for its 5-year period available through a competitive federal grant program for a range of activities in states intended to promote “healthy marriage.”

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