- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

Welfare rolls continued to fall last year, despite the struggling economy, according to federal data released today in anticipation of a lengthy welfare debate in the Senate.

As of September, the most recent month from which data were available, 2,006,597 families were enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, said the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

This is a decline, albeit a small one, from the 2,024,691 families on welfare in September 2002.

When looking at the numbers of individuals on TANF, instead of families, during the same time period, the numbers fell by 2 percent from 4,995,719 in 2002 to 4,880,037 in 2003.

“Welfare reform is a remarkable success story for millions of American families,” said HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. “Even in more challenging economic times,” he said, families can look forward to the independence of a paycheck rather than a welfare check.

The Senate started its discussion to renew the 1996 welfare-reform law yesterday and is expected to continue the debate today.

The 1996 law disbanded an old welfare-entitlement program and created the TANF welfare-to-work program, which gives states greater flexibility to craft their welfare programs in exchange for a limited amount — $16.5 billion annually — for welfare services.

The 1996 law also boosted child care funds, toughened child-support laws, created the $50 million-a-year Title V abstinence-education grant program and encouraged states to offer “charitable choice” welfare services by contracting with faith-based groups.

Hot topics in this week’s Senate debate are likely to include proposals to boost child care by $6 billion, allow the abstinence money to be spent on other kinds of sex education and reopen welfare programs to legal immigrants.

The 1996 law expired in September 2002 and has been extended ever since. The House passed its welfare-reform reauthorization bill in February.

Yesterday, Senate Democrats threatened to stall a welfare bill because of a separate dispute over raising the minimum wage, the latest election-year battle over workers’ wages and benefits.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said that if Republicans do not agree to a vote on raising the hourly minimum wage from $5.15 to $7, Democrats would “use all the other kinds of parliamentary moves that we know how to use.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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