- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

President Bush yesterday demanded that welfare recipients work longer hours for their government checks as part of a major welfare overhaul.
Building on the success of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which required 50 percent of the recipients to work or study 30 hours a week, Mr. Bush said that should be increased to 70 percent of recipients working 40 hours.
"The success of the past few years should not make us complacent as a nation," Mr. Bush said at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Washington. "It proves what is possible when we press forward. And I am determined to press forward to build a single nation of justice and opportunity."
The 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which was forced upon a reluctant President Clinton by congressional Republicans, has slashed welfare rolls in half.
"Critics initially called these changes brutal and mean-spirited," Mr. Bush said. "Yet the results of reform have proven them wrong."
Within hours of Mr. Bush's speech, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay hosted a strategy meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and top House Republicans to begin an all-out push to approve the proposal.
Aides described the Republicans' strategy as similar to their relentless effort last year to approve the administration's energy policy. Republicans plan to hold weekly hearings, press conferences and other events to promote the reforms in what they are calling their most important effort of the year.
At a Capitol Hill meeting of governors, members of Congress and Mr. Thompson yesterday, the welfare plan received so many plaudits that even the politicians were surprised.
"Before we're done, we're going to have a big group hug," said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican.
"This is like a welfare-reform reunion," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., Florida Republican, who recalled how five years ago Republican welfare reform was greeted with cries of "gloom and doom."
A senior administration official said the success of the 1996 law proved that "the most disadvantaged mothers, the ones that liberals and Democrats argued we have to have entitlements to support, were capable of at least providing a major part of their self-support."
The 1996 law was opposed by the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, which yesterday savaged the president's proposed overhaul.
"I'm fairly surprised and shocked," said the group's director, Deepak Bhargava. "The proposal is really a gift to the far right of the Republican Party."
Mr. Bhargava said Mr. Bush is toughening work requirements without providing states with the money to achieve that goal.
"They can't do a 70 percent work requirement with no new money," he said. "It's stunning. Whatever you thought about the 1996 law, the work requirements that came with it also came with a massive new infusion of resources for child care."
Critics also said Mr. Bush should not be cracking down on welfare in the middle of a recession. They said the only reason welfare rolls fell in the late 1990s was the booming economy.
"Some analysts try to dismiss all these gains as the product of good economic times," the president said. "Yet we have had good economic times before, and the number of people on welfare went up.
"Beginning in the mid-1960s, welfare caseloads often increased even as the economy grew and unemployment fell," he added.
Democrats yesterday commended the plan's flexibility and focus on work, but carefully outlined areas for change.
The proposed 40-hour-a-week work requirement, for instance, is too prescriptive, said Rep. Sander Levin, Michigan Democrat. "What if a welfare recipient finds a 35-hour-a-week job with health benefits?" he asked.
Forty hours of work "may work for a married couple, but it's very difficult for a single parent," unless more money is made available for child care, said Sen. John Breaux, Louisiana Democrat.
David Boyer contributed to this report.


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