Welfare Bill Languishes Due to Debate Over Work and Marriage Waivers

WASHINGTON—Welfare reform has come a long way since 1996, when opponents warned reform might throw millions into poverty and leave children freezing on grates. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 passed and poverty rates among children and single mothers began to plunge—helped along by the robust ,90s economy.

But now the economy is in recession and the first phase of the reform experiment is over. Welfare reform—TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children—has reached its expiration date and remains in effect only until Dec. 31 under a stopgap bill signed by President Bush on Sept. 30.

The House has passed one bill extending welfare reform and the Senate Finance Committee has passed a competing bill. The Senate bill has not yet come to a vote and the two houses have not been able to compromise on some key features. If Congress can't come to an agreement before the end of the year on work requirements, child-care subsidies and aid to legal immigrants, it will have to enact another stopgap bill that would let TANF limp along for another year without any changes.

Both Catholic Charities USA and the U.S. bishops' conference prefer the Senate version of the bill, which provides more money for child care and allows job training and education to fulfill the work requirements.

The House bill would require recipients to spend 40 hours a week in “productive activities,” 24 hours of which must be spent at a job. (Current law requires 30 hours of productive activities.) The House bill also provides more money for marriage- and fatherhood-promotion programs and greater flexibility for states.

Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy of Catholic Charities USA, argued that the House bill's work requirements would take parents away from their children.

“Care of children is the parent's highest duty,” she said. “The way the welfare programs work now, there really is not an option for mothers to stay at home when their children are very young.”

“The Senate bill,” she noted, “does have additional funding for child care and it does not have the extreme new work requirements.” She was disappointed that the Senate bill did not have as strong support for marriage and fatherhood programs as the House bill, “but we did support the bill on the whole,” she said.

Abortion Rate Drops

A recent study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (a research organization affiliated with Planned Parenthood) found that the abortion rate had dropped 11% overall in the last half of the 1990s but spiked up 25% among women below the poverty line and rose 23% for poor women who earned less than twice the poverty limit.

“We think the existence of cash assistance is an incentive for a woman to not have an abortion,” Daly said.

A recent survey of eight welfare studies found that teens with working mothers on welfare were more likely to do poorly in school, get suspended or drop out, compared with teens whose welfare-dependent mothers didn't work. Many of the mothers in the study worked 30 hours a week.

More general studies of welfare recipients' families have found that teens tend to benefit less than adults and younger children. Researchers have speculated that some mothers rely on teens to help take care of younger children, thus adding to teens' stress, while other teens spend their time just “hanging out” with peers who provide bad role models.

But Maggie Gallagher, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values and a Catholic opinion columnist, argued that “tougher work requirements or stronger families?” is a false dilemma. She pointed out that single mothers' poverty rates, as well as child poverty rates, dropped dramatically after welfare reform. She said single mothers on welfare are often depressed, facing “disorganized neighborhoods” and “disorganized lives.”

“Work tends to be very good for depressed women,” Gallagher said. “It organizes life and puts you in an environment that is relatively safe, [an environment that] makes sense. If the alternative is a sense of perpetual dependence, that in itself” can keep women down.

However, Gallagher quickly added, “I don't think work is an excellent solution to the real problem, which is that we have so many unwed mothers. Making good marriages is what would really encourage good parenting and child well-being.”

Gallagher, like Catholic Charities and the bishops' conference, strongly supported the House bill's marriage-promotion aspects. Critics have charged that the government should not get involved in something as intimate as a couple's marriage decisions. To those critics Gallagher replied, “Right now you have a government that talks to pregnant and unwed mothers about all kinds of things—how to dress, how to talk on the phone, what kind of contraceptives to use. But somehow the one word you're not allowed to use is marriage, because that's too personal?”

She emphasized that “marriage promotion” doesn't mean a “coercive or punitive approach.” She described an approach in which “when the government takes clients it asks them—particularly new parents, many of whom are cohabiting and most of whom are interested in marriage—if they would be interested in premarital education programs. And if they say, ‘No,' you can leave them alone! And if they say,‘Yes,' you can refer them to community and faith-based programs.”

Still Unresolved

There are two main obstacles to understanding the current welfare debate: First, the specific bills currently on the table are not the bills that will ultimately get passed. The bills will be warped and massaged in closed-door conferences, with each side offering compromises and making concessions. Second, the specifics of the bills can be difficult to follow. For example, many critics of the Senate bill charge that it weakens the work requirements by allowing job training to “count” toward the required work hours.

Similarly, Gallagher charged that “the Senate attempted to gut the money strengthening marriage,” allowing that money to be used for helping recipients meet their transportation and child-care needs. She said sardonically, “We would have a marriage bill in which the money could all be spent on transportation and child care.”

Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C.