It’s amazing some politicians don’t get whiplash when they speak. Take the President. On Tuesday, while unveiling his new welfare plan at a church in Washington D.C., George W. Bush hailed single mothers: “Across America, no doubt about it, single mothers do heroic work. They have the toughest job in our country; raising children by themselves is an incredibly hard job.” Yes, indeed, but seconds earlier Bush called for changes in the welfare law that would make life more difficult for single mothers in need of assistance.
The welfare bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton is up for reauthorization–which provides Bush the opportunity to suggest changes and depict himself as a welfare-reformer (which is never a politically unpopular position). His key proposal requires states to have 70 percent of their welfare recipients working–in order to collect their full share of federal welfare funds. Current law calls for states to maintain half of their welfare recipients in work activity, but that requirement can be lowered drastically if a state has reduced its caseload. Bush would repeal this “caseload reduction credit,” making the 70-percent figure firm.
That would be a real jolt to the system. The Administration estimates that, due to the caseload reduction credit, states, on average, demand work of only 5 percents of the recipients. (Others say the figure is closer to 30 percent.) Moreover, under the Bush plan, a recipient can only be counted as working if she or he–we’re mostly talking about the shes–is participating in 40 hours of work or work-related activities. The rules in place now demand 30 hours. Long story short: all those heroic single mothers struggling to raise kids while working in order to receive federal assistance will have to work longer hours. The “toughest job” just got tougher, or it will, if Bush gets his way.
Call me a fuzzy-headed poverty pimp (or whatever the welfare-reform advocates say about welfare-reform doubters), but I’ve never understood all the talk about the connection between work and family values. Sure, it is a reasonable policy goal to help low-income parents obtain the skills and support they need to provide for their children. But work and family responsibilities often are in conflict, as many parents know too well. Many social conservatives argue in favor of stay-at-home parenting–just not when the parent is a poor woman with young children who may have been abandoned by a spouse. Such women, according to Bush, must spend more time out of the home and away from their children.
The Bush proposal would also more narrowly define what counts as work activities for welfare recipients. Under the Administration proposal, the first 24 hours (of the 40 hours of work) would have to be in a job, an on-the-job training program, or a community work program. At the moment, if a welfare recipient spends time in a job-search program or vocational education activities, that is considered “work.” So if the Bush “reforms” are approved, states will have to push welfare recipients out of job-search training and vocational education in order to meet federal requirements. (Remember, if they don’t meet those standards, Washington holds back the cash.) Participation in a drug treatment program or physical rehab program could count for work–but only for up to three months. If your habit isn’t cracked by then, if you still need more physical therapy before being able to hold down a job, too bad.