- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

The welfare caseload continued to shrink this year, demonstrating that the work-based reform is effective even in a recession, federal officials said yesterday.

About 267,000 people left welfare between December 2001 and June. This reduced the number of people on welfare by 5.1 percent, to 5 million, the Department of Health and Human Services said.

The number of families on welfare dropped by 75,000, to 2 million, representing a 3.6 percent decline.

"This latest report simply reaffirms that welfare reform in America is working" despite some tough economic times, said HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

Hallmarks of the landmark 1996 law are work requirements for welfare recipients, state flexibility in crafting their welfare programs and a five-year time limit on federal cash benefits.

Since the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was enacted, the welfare caseload has fallen by nearly 60 percent, with the vast majority of people leaving welfare for work, researchers say.

The new caseload numbers demonstrate that welfare reform's success is "not driven primarily by the economy," said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at HHS.

"For those who predicted that welfare reform might be successful in good economic times, but a disaster in bad economic times, this shows that welfare reform can weather a recession and, now that we're coming out of it, is continuing to place people previously on welfare into jobs," Mr. Horn said.

It's unlikely that many people are leaving welfare because they reached time limits on benefits, he added. States are allowed to exempt as much as 20 percent of their caseloads from the time limits, "and, as far as I'm aware, there's not a single state that has yet to even come close to bumping up to their 20 percent exemption."

The $16.5-billion-a-year welfare law expired Sept. 30. When the Senate did not pass a bill to reauthorize it, Congress passed a resolution to continue the program until the end of the year.

One of the many reasons Congress should pass a new welfare-reform law yet this year is to free up $2 billion "that is sitting in state coffers," Mr. Horn said.

HHS data shows that, as of June 30, 33 states and the District have accumulated more than $2 billion in unused TANF funds from previous years. (Maryland has a $46 million balance and the District has $7.9 million. Virginia doesn't have a balance.)

But federal law prohibits states from using these "carry-over" funds for anything but cash payments for welfare recipients.

Without reauthorization, this law can't be changed, which means that this $2 billion can't be used for such things as employment services or child care, Mr. Horn said.

"This is the great tragedy of the Senate inaction on TANF reauthorization," he said. There are many changes everyone agrees on, he added, but without congressional action, states may have to go another year with the status quo.

States need a new welfare-reform law not only to free up this $2 billion, but to have stability for their welfare programs, said Sheri Steisel, an analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Here you have one of the most successful programs that the federal government has ever enacted, and it really stops the momentum to suggest that they can't even agree to continue it," she said.

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