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HHS tightens welfare work rules

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Losing weight, exercising, getting a massage, reading motivational books and shopping with a friend are all "worthy activities," but they no longer can count as work under federal welfare regulations released yesterday.

Healthy adults on welfare should expect to spend at least 20 hours a week doing things that the average American thinks of as work -- such as earning a paycheck, going to job interviews and performing supervised community service, said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the Health and Human Services Department (HHS).

The new rules, which stem from the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, also will require many states to put more welfare recipients to work, Mr. Horn said at the So Others Might Eat Center for Employment Training in Southeast Washington.

A legal loophole in the landmark 1996 welfare law allowed many states to put only a small portion of their welfare caseloads to work. As a result, many adults in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program didn't go to work. In fiscal 2004, for example, 58 percent of all TANF families said they hadn't done a single hour of work in the previous month, Mr. Horn said.

The new rules close the loophole by raising the so-called "caseload reduction" credit from a 1995 level to a 2005 level. As a result, states will be required to put closer to 50 percent of their TANF caseloads to work or face a funding cut, Mr. Horn said.

Georgia is one of many states that already puts most of its TANF recipients -- 66.7 percent -- into work and career-building activities.

"Welfare-to-work is a mission we cannot afford not to do," B.J. Walker, head of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, said at yesterday's event with Mr. Horn. Being on welfare "isn't good enough" for a child, she added, noting that even a minimum-wage job brings in more income than a typical Georgia welfare check.

Other welfare specialists expressed concern that the new federal rules would curtail state flexibility to craft their own welfare programs, even though this was a key reason welfare rolls have fallen by 57 percent to less than 2 million families since 1996.

States have different economies and different challenges relating to their welfare caseloads, said Sheri Steisel, director of human services policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Imposing stricter rules from that HHS labyrinth reverses 10 years of progress" and returns the country to the days of "federal micromanagement and policy-making handcuffs," NCSL Deputy Executive Director Carl Tubbesing wrote on the organization's Web site.

At a Heritage Foundation event earlier this month, HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said new work definitions were needed because some states had been including activities such as bed rest and "personal journaling" as welfare-to-work activities.

These are "all worthy activities," he said, "but not necessarily within the category of work."

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