Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The landmark 1996 welfare-reform law has done a lot to “break the cycle of dependency” on public assistance, but it has “unfinished business” in moving more people into self-sufficiency and stable, two-parent families, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said yesterday.

More single mothers are working, child-support collections have nearly doubled and more than 1 million fewer children live in poverty, Mr. Leavitt said at the Heritage Foundation.

“Self-sufficiency is a powerful influence in the lives of us all,” he said, citing an example of a welfare mother who now has a stable job, bought a car and a home and helped her child succeed in school.

However, welfare reform needed a midcourse correction, which was included in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, said Mr. Leavitt.

States now are required to put at least half their welfare recipients into work or other productive activities, as well as renew efforts to discourage unwed childbearing and encourage two-parent families and healthy marriages.

“You might say we’ve rebooted the system and we’re starting welfare reform all over again,” said Mr. Leavitt, who as Utah’s governor lobbied for and implemented reform in his state.

Welfare reform was written by the Republican majority in Congress, passed with strong bipartisan support and signed into law by President Clinton on Aug. 22, 1996.

Its unprecedented mandatory work rules for recipients, 60-month time limit on benefits and state flexibility to tailor welfare programs to low-income populations led to a 57 percent reduction in the number of families on welfare. About 1.9 million families were on welfare last June, compared with 4.4 million families in August 1996, HHS data show.

The Republican-led House Ways and Means Committee has been publishing 10-year anniversary reports on the 1996 welfare reform law this year.

One “untold story” about welfare reform is that it saved taxpayers billions of dollars by ending welfare checks to prisoners, fugitives, drug addicts and alcoholics, as well as legal aliens who signed pledges not to collect welfare when they came to this country, said Rep. Wally Herger, California Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee that wrote the welfare law.

But old patterns die hard and the 1996 reforms haven’t led to a lot of change in many welfare bureaucracies, Heritage welfare analyst Robert Rector said yesterday.

The new $150-million-a-year allocation for marriage skills and responsible fatherhood programs isn’t going directly to states like other welfare funds, but is being made available to applicants, including government agencies, who are clear that they are committed to such programs, Mr. Rector said.

The goal is to avoid having funding recipients “slap” a marriage class “on their job-training program and call it a marriage program,” he said.

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