- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

Housing, an essential element of any family's life, has been largely forgotten in the welfare-reform debate, housing and poverty experts said at a seminar Friday.
"I do not remember any meaningful conversation about housing" during negotiations for the 1996 welfare-reform law, said John Monahan, a former Clinton administration official who is now with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
After the law passed, housing quickly emerged as a crucial issue, he said. States needed to know if people on housing assistance were also "on the clock" meaning they were subject to the new 60-month lifetime limit on federal welfare checks.
A "yes" answer meant welfare families could quickly burn up their precious 60 months of welfare benefits, simply by getting housing assistance.
Many state officials found creative ways to get around this rule: Both New Jersey and North Carolina fund housing assistance in a way that doesn't put families "on the clock," officials said Friday at the Brookings Institution at a seminar co-sponsored by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
But now that the 1996 welfare law is due for reauthorization, it's time to rethink the intersection of housing and welfare, Mr. Monahan said.
Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs subcommittee on housing and transportation, said he would schedule hearings on the issue. A Democratic Senate aide said he believed that other senators particularly Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat also would raise the housing-welfare connection.
Only about a third of welfare families get housing assistance, said Urban Institute researcher Sheila R. Zedlewski, who recently looked at 1999 data from the institute's National Survey of America's Families, which includes 42,000 families.
For these fortunate few, housing assistance makes a big difference, she said. It covers a third of a family's rent and is one of the few services that can continue after they leave welfare. Furthermore, she said, families who leave welfare but have housing assistance are more likely to be working than similar families who do not have housing assistance.
Most families who leave welfare still can't earn enough to pay for decent housing, said Margy Waller, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Barbara Sard of CBPP. A typical low-income mother with two children would have to pay 58 percent of her income to live in a two-bedroom unit, the researchers found.
Of the possible solutions to the housing-welfare problems, the "superwaiver" idea proposed by the Bush administration and a House welfare-reform bill did not fare well.
Under a superwaiver, state officials could change the rules of federal education, labor, social service and select housing programs, as long as they are approved by Cabinet secretaries and are cost-neutral. The idea has been championed by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, who, as Wisconsin governor, used federal waivers to completely redesign his state's successful welfare program.
But the superwaiver would shift power from Congress to the states and executive branch and make Cabinet secretaries "kings" of regulatory authority, said CBPP Executive Director Robert Greenstein. "I find it bizarre that the House would want to make itself meaningless," he said, "and would the House even consider this if there was a liberal Democrat in the White House?"

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