Congress quarrels as welfare withers


WASHINGTON - Welfare programs around the country are in limbo because of a stalemate in Congress that has prompted state officials to postpone new investments in child care, expansions of job training and most other initiatives for welfare recipients and low-wage workers.

Congressional Republicans insist that stricter work requirements must be part of any effort to renew the 1996 welfare law. Democrats, including some who voted against that measure, now embrace it, saying only minor changes are needed.

Major provisions of the law were scheduled to expire in September 2002. Since then, Congress has passed seven bills extending the program, typically for three months at a time. Lawmakers, who return to work today, say they see little chance for approval of a long-term reauthorization this year.

If the stalemate in Congress persists, states could lose money. The House and the Senate have tentatively agreed to continue providing $16.5 billion a year for the main welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But with large budget deficits looming, lawmakers say, Congress will be under intense pressure to cut the amount next year.

"Our fear is that that if you go past the elections, things will change - things will change for the worse," said Marc S. Ryan, Connecticut budget director.

Republican Rep. Wally Herger of California, who is chairman of a subcommittee that handles welfare legislation, agreed. "As time passes," he said, "budget pressures will squeeze tighter and tighter."

The impasse is remarkable because lawmakers of both parties describe the 1996 law as a success, which moved millions of people from welfare to work and cut the welfare rolls by 60 percent, to 4.9 million people. A main goal of the law was to give more control over welfare policy to state and local officials, who say their hands are tied because of Congress' inaction.

"Welfare reform has become a hostage to the geopolitics of Washington, D.C.," said Kevin W. Concannon, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services.

The 1996 law eliminated the individual entitlement to cash aid and gave each state a lump sum of money with vast discretion over how to use it. Now, uncertain about federal spending levels and the direction of federal policy, state officials have deferred major decisions.

In many respects, the states' plight is illustrated in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which together account for nearly 10 percent of the nation's welfare recipients.

Officials in those states are bracing for the likelihood that Congress will require welfare recipients to work longer hours. Such changes, they say, would force states to expand child care for welfare recipients, perhaps at the expense of child care subsidies now paid to low-income workers who have left welfare.

These officials also expressed concern that Congress might cut grants to the states under the main federal welfare program, given the drastic decline in welfare rolls. At the same time, the officials seek more freedom to tailor their programs to local needs. They want to expand the definition of work to include more vocational education and drug treatment. They want to permit families on welfare to keep a larger share of the child support that states collect on their behalf.

Across the country, governors and state legislators of both parties are pleading with Congress to reauthorize the welfare program for five years. Such a package "will provide states with the predictability needed for the continued success of welfare reform," said the National Governors Association, in a letter signed by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, a Democrat, and Gov. John Hoeven of North Dakota, a Republican.

Welfare debates are less partisan in state capitals than in Congress, where fundamental disagreements over policy are sharper in an election year.

"Some Democrats don't want to give President Bush any legislative victories before the election," said Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary of health and human services in charge of welfare policy.

The House and Senate bills differ in many ways, but both stipulate that 70 percent of adult welfare recipients should be engaged in work activities by 2008, subject to certain adjustments.

That proposal has caused confusion and alarm in New York City, where officials say slightly more than half the adults on welfare have disabilities that make it difficult for them to work.

"If the federal government comes out with a 70 percent work requirement at this juncture, with this population, New York City is in trouble," said Eggleston, the city's human resources commissioner.

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