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Welfare reform law faces revision at 15

Safety net again under scrutiny on Hill

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Don't expect much hoopla or cake-cutting as the landmark welfare reform law passed by President Clinton and congressional Republicans in the mid-1990s celebrates its 15th anniversary Monday.

Even though the widely touted overhaul of the national safety net for the poor and unemployed has touched the lives of virtually every American family, the Obama administration and Congress are debating new changes to the system, and a temporary extension of the main welfare programs is likely again with another funding deadline looming Sept. 30.

But another round of welfare reform is not being ignored on Capitol Hill.

Both the House and Senate have had committee hearings, and in March, a group of House Republicans introduced a bill to begin "managing" welfare by requiring a public accounting of the costs of 70-plus federal anti-poverty programs.

Ineffective, redundant and obsolete programs will be targeted for cost savings or elimination, House Republican aides say.

By contrast, a group of House Democrats, led by Rep. Danny K. Davis of Illinois, have introduced their own version of the bill, also designed to overhaul several federal welfare programs. Government has too many barriers to "healthy relationships and healthy marriages," cooperative parenting and "sustainable employment," said Mr. Davis.

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act touched virtually all U.S. households, addressing a system of welfare for the poor that even many supporters acknowledged was in serious disrepair.

Besides establishing a cash-welfare program with time limits and work rules, the law funded child care, child-support enforcement, child welfare, community block grants, energy assistance, nutrition, adoption, responsible fatherhood, teen-pregnancy prevention and abstinence education. Marriage education was added later.

Congress last approved a reauthorization in 2005, wrapping the move in a larger budget reconciliation bill, and must authorize further funding under that law by Sept. 30.

When the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program went into effect, 12.3 million people and 4.4 million families received welfare checks. With an emphasis on work and ending a culture of dependence of federal handouts, U.S. welfare rolls soon plummeted, declining even through the 2000-2002 recession.

But the Great Recession that began in 2008 forced many American families to turn again to welfare. Today, TANF rolls are about 18 percent higher, with 4.4 million recipients and 1.8 million families in 2010.

The 1996 reform had many notable outcomes: higher employment for low-income mothers; higher collection rates for child-support payments; new "welfare-to-work" programs in states; and, at least until the 2007 recession, a sustained drop in child-poverty rates.

However, critics of welfare reform argue that many of the changes in the 1996 law were misguided and should be reversed.

TANF's reforms have "shredded the safety net," said Legal Momentum, a women's legal defense and advocacy group.

Only two-fifths of eligible families and one-fifth of poor children are enrolled in TANF, and many people, including legal immigrants, are "arbitrarily" excluded, the group said. Also, TANF checks are inadequate in the current struggling economy, the work rules discourage education, child care is underfunded, and there aren't enough government-subsidized jobs.

Conservatives aren't satisfied, either - arguing that in many ways the first reforms did not go far enough.

Combined federal and state government spending in fiscal 2011 will be around $470 billion on means-tested programs to families, Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector told a House hearing in April. If that sum was divided among 14 million families, "the result would be around $33,000 per low-income family with children," he said. He urged Congress to return to prerecession spending levels and permit growth in payments "no faster than inflation."

Rep. Geoff Davis, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, expressed concern that states are doing too little to help welfare recipients find and keep a job. He has announced plans for new hearings on changes to the system.

"Despite significant success since welfare reforms were enacted in the 1990s, in fiscal year 2010, over four in ten TANF families faced no work requirement at all," Mr. Davis said. "It's time to ensure that states are taking the necessary steps to help TANF families move up the economic ladder, as the 1996 welfare reform intended."

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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