- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2003

The landmark 1996 welfare-reform law reaches a dubious milestone tomorrow — the first anniversary of its official expiration date.

Last week, the House passed a bill to again re-extend the law’s provisions, which technically expired Sept. 30, 2002, although the various measures have been extended repeatedly. The House extensions last through March 31, and Senate aides say their chamber is expected to pass its extension by Wednesday.

At a news conference last week, Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, urged the Senate to pass welfare reform before adjourning this year because “quirks in the law” have led to virtually no work requirements in the states.

States are supposed to move 50 percent of their welfare caseloads to work, but they can reduce that number if their welfare caseloads shrink, Mr. Santorum said.

Welfare caseloads have plummeted, leaving most states with little or no work requirements, he said. As a result, “we are lapsing back to the old welfare system,” in which states let people sit home and collect welfare checks, he said.

The next welfare law has to fix this loophole and ensure that states always have to move part of their caseloads into work, he said.

“You can’t get out of poverty unless you have a job,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, who added that passing welfare reform is “unequivocally” one of President Bush’s top domestic policy goals.

Mr. Santorum predicted that when welfare is debated on the Senate floor, child-care funding and marriage will be key issues.

States now receive $4.8 billion a year for child-care needs of families on welfare or those who meet low-income tests. The House welfare bill adds $2 billion and a Senate Finance Committee bill adds $1 billion to these funds over five years.

Child-care advocates say this is woefully inadequate, especially when Congress is setting longer work hours for single mothers. Already many families who have left welfare for work struggle to get by in low-paying jobs, and “we can’t pull the rug out from under these families now,” said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat.

Republicans say there is enough child-care funding in the bills for two reasons:

First, Congress is maintaining record-high $16.5 billion-a-year funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, even though welfare rolls have dwindled to 2 million families, down from 4.4 million in 1996. States may use up to 30 percent of their TANF money to pay for child care; the House welfare bill would increase this to 50 percent.

Secondly, as of tomorrow, states will have about $5.6 billion in unspent TANF funds, the General Accounting Office estimated in a report this month.

Under current law, states can use around $1.7 billion of these holdover TANF funds for child care, but even larger sums will be freed up under measures in the Senate Finance and House welfare bills. “So there’s plenty of money available” for day care, Mr. Santorum said.

As for marriage, some senators are likely to dispute a measure to allocate up to $300 million a year in welfare funds to promote healthy marriages. Senate Democrats last year pushed a “marriage-plus” approach, in which funds could be used for relationships-skills programs and/or job training and social services.

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