- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Top welfare, work, marriage and teen pregnancy-prevention officials are gathering in Washington this week to review the impact of the 5-year-old welfare reform law.
The Sept. 5-6 conference is the first major welfare event convened by the Bush administration. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and HHS Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Wade F. Horn are scheduled to give major addresses.
It may also be the first to review state efforts to promote marriage and two-parent families among low-income populations, said one welfare observer.
"This is extremely important and reflects the new focus of the Bush administration," said Maggie Gallagher, a syndicated columnist and co-author of "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially."
It shouldn't be difficult to talk about pro-marriage policies since the 1996 welfare reform act "made strengthening marriage and two-parent families one of the goals of the law," Mrs. Gallagher said. "And yet there has been very little effort to look at how public policy and welfare either strengthens or undermines marriage in low-income communities."
One problem may be that it's "not clear to everyone that supporting marriage is a legitimate goal of public policy," added Mrs. Gallagher. Promoting marriage "will take leadership" and this week's conference marks a beginning for that, she said.
Conference participants will include state lawmakers, local public officials, business executives, welfare researchers and leaders of faith-based programs. The sessions will focus on employment, family formation, responsible fatherhood, sexual abstinence, teen-pregnancy-prevention, child support and family health.
Welfare reform's fifth anniversary was Aug. 22, and the law must be considered for reauthorization by Congress by the fall of 2002.
The law's major change repealed a handful of old welfare programs that allowed unlimited spending. It created a large block-grant welfare program in their place.
Today, states receive a fixed amount of money to stabilize poor families and help them become self-sufficient. The federal law established work requirements, participation rates and a five-year maximum time limit to federal cash benefits.
In exchange, states were allowed great latitude to redesign their welfare programs to fit the needs of their low-income populations.
Last month, in its annual report to Congress about the reform, HHS reported that since August 1996, the welfare caseload fell from 12.2 million recipients to 5.8 million. This is the largest decline in the history of the program and the lowest percentage of the population on welfare since 1965, HHS said.
While the caseload decline is remarkable, "more important is the fact that these families are better off," said Mr. Thompson, who is nationally known for the "end of welfare" innovations he led while governor of Wisconsin.
Still, states have focused on the "get to work" part of welfare reform, "while only a few states have taken up" the challenge of discouraging out-of-wedlock child-bearing and encouraging marriage, Rep. Wally Herger, California Republican, said at a hearing he chaired in May on welfare and marriage.
These issues are touchy ones, he said. "Americans rightly are concerned about government involvement when it comes to sensitive issues like child-bearing and family formation.
"But just as we agree on removing marriage penalties in the tax code, we should also think about removing marriage penalties in public benefit programs," Mr. Herger said.
Democrats and liberal groups, who have always had a love-hate relationship with welfare reform, have already signaled their objections to strategies that favor married couples over single parents.

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