- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2002

During this year's debate about extending the welfare reform law, there has been a growing disconnect between what President Bush is saying and what his administration is proposing. As Congress tries to wrap up its remaining business, it must reconcile these two different, and at times even competing, visions before it can take the next step in reforming welfare.
An example of this disconnect is President Bush's description of the 1996 welfare law as "a true success story." Despite this endorsement, the Bush administration would require states to make what most governors consider "fundamental changes" to their welfare programs.
Many state welfare departments have complained that they will be forced to place welfare recipients in "make-work" rather than real jobs under the administration's plan, potentially threatening the very success the president has touted.
The president has said, "People can achieve, just give them a chance." And Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has urged Congress to "help those families that have left welfare, to climb the economic ladder and become more secure in the work force."
But the huge unfunded mandate that would be imposed upon the states by the administration's welfare proposal (estimated to cost states between $8 billion and $11 billion by the Congressional Budget Office) would all but preclude them from going the extra mile to help former welfare recipients move up the economic ladder. In other words, states would have to focus on implementing new make-work requirements for welfare recipients, rather than on helping families escape poverty when they exit welfare for work.
President Bush has repeatedly extolled the virtues of state flexibility recently saying "the more we trust the local people, the more likely it is that good programs will spring forward" and that "one size doesn't fit all when it comes to trying to help people help themselves." However, in reality, the administration's plan to extend the welfare reform law would impose just such a "one size fits all" approach that would dramatically limit state and local flexibility.
For example, the Bush proposal would force states to double the time single mothers with young children participate in work-related activities, it would prevent states from continuing to count enrollment in vocational education toward the core federal participation requirements for welfare recipients, and it would prohibit states from serving legal immigrants with their welfare block grants.
Finally, President Bush has highlighted the work of single mothers as "the toughest job in America." Unfortunately, the administration's welfare proposal would make that job even harder by failing to provide adequate child care funding for both single and married mothers who need affordable day care to remain employed.
Current child care funding is insufficient to serve even 20 percent of the modest-income families federally eligible for such aid. And yet the administration has proposed no new resources for child care, even as it recommends longer work requirements for welfare recipients.
As Congress continues to consider these issues, I hope we are guided in the end by the tenor of President Bush's comments, rather than the details of his proposal. Such a course would garner strong bipartisan support, and, as aptly put by President Bush, it would "provide the resources and the flexibility so we can help people find work."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, is the ranking member on the House Ways and Means' Human Resources Subcommittee and authored the Democratic alternative bill for welfare reform.

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