Bush touts tough new welfare plan; state officials skeptical

Saturday, May 11, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- President Bush urged Congress on Friday to stiffen work requirements for welfare recipients -- a proposal greeted skeptically by state officials who wondered whether they would be saddled with the plan's price tag.

Even as they warmed up a small crowd of welfare activists for Bush, leaders of Ohio's welfare program and Republican Sen. George Voinovich said they were concerned that the White House plan would increase the cost of child care and other state-run social programs.

"We will need more money to continue these kind of support services," said Judith Stattmiller, director of St. Stephen's Community House. Her program was chosen for Bush's visit because he wants to steer federal money to similar religious community service agencies across the country.

Stattmiller and other community workers expressed support for the president's vision -- but concerns about the costs -- as Bush met privately with local leaders.

Bush later told the crowd his program would build on the 1996 welfare overhaul bill by helping more recipients find work and dignity.

He urged Congress to "understand the power of work" by implementing his plan when they reauthorize the bill. That measure, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Democratic President Clinton, helped shrink state-run welfare rolls.

The House is scheduled to take up the matter next week.

"If work made a huge difference in people's lives as a result of the 1996 bill, it ought to be a part of the reauthorization," the president said.

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.

"It's not too high a goal if it helps bring dignity into some person's life," Bush said. Aides say the president hopes to ease opposition to the welfare plan by making it part of his broader political strategy to combine conservative policies with initiatives that show the government's compassion.

'Jumping for joy'

When he announced the plan in February, Bush 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. He also proposed maintaining the five-year ban on benefits for legal immigrants.

He promised the crowd at St. Stephens that Washington will pay for job training for welfare recipients.

"We've got money in the budget to do just that," he said.

Still, state officials said they don't want to foot the bill for Bush's plan, even if it does offer them new flexibility in other areas of welfare reform.

"Ninety percent of what President Bush said, we're jumping for joy over," said Joel Potts, Ohio's welfare policy administrator. "But the one place that everybody is going to be concerned about is how much resources it's going to take -- and we'll work through that with Congress."

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