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.
The wonks of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provide this example: “Suppose…that a state determined that a recipient had serious barriers to employment–such as a disability, the need to care for an ill or disabled child, a substance abuse program, illiteracy, or a serious domestic violence situation–and that the parent needed more than three months of specialized activities before she could be successful in a 24 hour-per-week work experience or subsidized job program. If, under the Administration’s proposal, the state tailored activities to the parent’s needs, and capabilities, the state would be unable to ‘count’ the parent toward the work participation requirements unless the tailored activities matched the narrow set of federally mandated activities.” And if the state cannot count that recipient toward the 70-percent requirement, it will have less incentive to provide the assistance that person most needs. Republicans usually assail federal mandates and pine for back-to-the-states devolution. For Bush, states-know-best federalism does not extend to welfare.
In his speech, Bush noted that he wanted to spend $17 billion a year on welfare in the next four years. That sounds generous. But he did not mention this is a freeze in the welfare budget. And since he would push states to place more recipients in more expensive work programs, this amount of welfare spending would end up buying less services. Also, the number of recipients requiring child care (and the number of hours of child care needed) would increase. Yet the Bush plan does not include more funds for child care.
Bush did add money to one program: marriage support. He announced he would propose spending $300 million a year “to help couples who want to get married and stay married.” He maintained that “premarital education programs can increase happiness in marriage and reduce divorce by teaching couples how to resolve conflict, how to improve communications, most importantly, how to treat each other with respect.” It’s hard to object to voluntary measures of that sort. And it is tempting to say, too bad Newt Gingrich (now on wife number three) is not around to shepherd such an initiative through Congress. Or to quip, did you know that 50 percent of the four most recent Republican presidential nominees divorced their first wives? But perhaps if a stressed-out low-income couples had affordable child care and less pressure from the state to enter workfare (instead of, say, a vocational education program), the pair might find it easier to stay together.
The Bush plan has one not-so-dark spot. The 1996 law banned welfare benefits, including food stamps, for many legal immigrants. Bush wants to allow legal immigrants to receive food stamps after residing in the United States for five years. “A legal immigrant who’s been working here for five years and raising a family and all of sudden gets laid off and needs a helping hand ought to get food stamps,” Bush declared. “The nation must show compassion.” But the National Governors’ Association and the National Conference of State Legislators have urged that states be allowed to use federal welfare funds to help recent immigrants. To that, Bush says no. What about a legal immigrant who has been working hard for four years? Sorry, compassion has its limits.
“The new system honors work by requiring work,” Bush asserted. He also declared, “The welfare system can honor the family.” That all may well be true. But a system that honors the family would take individual family needs into consideration. It would not pressure states to place a family head in workfare rather than job training or education programs. It would seek to ease family stress by increasing access to child care. Welfare can work, if policymakers realize honoring work and honoring family are not the same thing.