President outlines plan for welfare reforms

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, seeking to toughen a 1996 law that cut welfare rolls in half, urged Congress on Tuesday to push more people from public assistance into jobs.

"Work is the pathway to independence and self-respect," Bush told 500 people at a church in a poor neighborhood. "Many are learning it is more rewarding to be a responsible citizen than a welfare client; it is better to be a breadwinner respected by your family."

Critics questioned the wisdom of forcing people with little education or work experience to find jobs in a recession, but Bush said there would be enough for all. "We've got a plan to make sure the economy grows," he said. Bush's economic recovery plan is stalled in the Senate.

Bush, who campaigned as a "compassionate conservative," offered a blend of tough new requirements on states, which administer welfare programs, and initiatives to help recipients make the transition from welfare to work. Congress must renew the 1996 law this year.

Promoting marriage

He pledged $200 million in federal funds, plus $100 million in matching state funds, for programs aimed at getting low-income couples with children to marry, and he would maintain the five-year ban on benefits for legal immigrants.

The average state has about 30 percent of its welfare cases working; Bush would require states to get to 50 percent immediately and 70 percent by 2007. The Bush plan also would eliminate credits that have allowed states to meet the requirements by reducing the total number of welfare cases, instead of the percentage of those in jobs.

Bush also would allow states to put recipients in education, training and other programs for up to two days a week, or 16 hours. In addition, states could put people into job training or drug rehabilitation full time for three months, once every two years.

Bush's audience in predominantly black Southeast Washington reacted coolly to his tough-love approach. They sat silently through the heart of his speech, when he praised the 1996 law and outlined his measures for buttressing it.

"Welfare reform in 1996 was good and sound and compassionate public policy," Bush said. "We are encouraged by the initial results of welfare reform, but we're not content."

He drew cheers, however, when he praised single mothers and said: "In many cases, their lives and their children's lives would be better if their fathers had lived up to their responsibilities."

To advance its case, the White House went out of its way to assert that it was the 1996 law, and not the booming economy of the 1990s, that caused welfare rolls to drop by more than half. Outside experts say the economy played a major role, as did the tough new rules and state policies that kicked people off assistance for sometimes minor violations.

Last year about 2.1 million families were on assistance, down from 5.1 million in 1994, when welfare rolls peaked.

"Beginning in the mid-1960s, welfare case loads often increased even as the economy grew and unemployment fell," Bush said.

Banners hung inside the church auditorium for the occasion read "WORKING toward independence."

Governors' complaints

At a round-table discussion at the Capitol, Congressional Democrats and some governors, ending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, complained that the new requirements will hamstring states and prevent welfare counselors from deciding how much job training a recipient needs. And, they said, there is not enough money for states to get the job done. The administration plan recommends no increase in federal welfare grants and child-care dollars.

Republican Gov. John Engler of Michigan, chairman of the governors' organization, called the Bush work requirements "pretty tough" and said states should have more control over what counts as work in calculating the percentage of people participating.

"If you give us some flexibility, some of us are ready to tackle it," he said Tuesday.

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said it would be "very difficult" for a single mother who can't find or afford child care to work 40 hours a week.

But overall, on Capitol Hill there was considerably less acrimony than accompanied the fierce 1996 welfare battle, with debate focused around the margins of the program. So congenial was the session that Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., joked that the assembled leaders should light a fire and sing camp songs.

"As soon as we finish today," he said, "we're going to have a big group hug."

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