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Do It Right--Don't Hurt the Children : Avoiding disasters with much-needed welfare reform

Welfare Watch. One in an occasional series.

March 21, 1995

When the House debates welfare reform today, Republicans eager to make good on their "contract with America" will emphasize increasing personal responsibility and cutting government expenses. Both goals belong high on the national agenda. Achieving these goals, however, must not risk the health of America's children.

The proposed Personal Responsibility Act would reform welfare, food stamps, child care, disability and other social programs. But in their rush to judgment, in their rush to deliver before their self-imposed April deadline, members of the House GOP may not realize the actual impact or the unintended consequences of this daunting legislation. House lawmakers need to slow down: More study is warranted before they rewrite American social policy.

Effective welfare reform would end dependency, encourage employment and eliminate teen-age pregnancy. These goals require no bipartisan debate. The question for Congress, and the nation, is how to change social policy without hurting children.

No child should be left without care because welfare reform makes a parent take a job. The work requirement is justifiable, but not without some provision for child care. An amendment by Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) would provide $750 million over five years to subsidize day care. A good start.

No child should suffer because a parent refuses to pay child support. Another Republican amendment would allow states to revoke driver's licenses and professional licenses when parents did not comply. California already uses such authority to collect money that is rightfully owed to a child, money that taxpayers should not have to spend in the form of welfare payments. President Clinton strongly supports this approach. The Health and Human Services Department estimates that denying licenses nationally would ease delinquent child-support collections by $24 billion and reduce welfare costs by $4 billion over a decade.

Another amendment should restore benefits for legal immigrants. Newcomers who have played by the rules and paid taxes should not be denied in their time of need. California would be hurt disproportionately because, according to the U.S. Census, 25% of legal immigrants nationwide are in this state. Surely, the California congressional delegation is mindful of the unfair impact that would result.

There is much room for improvement throughout the proposed Personal Responsibility Act. Keeping block grants at current levels for the next five years would leave no room for growth due to a recession or developments like the crack cocaine epidemic that has bloated foster care programs. This inflexibility would in effect impose an unfunded mandate on some state and county programs. Foster care programs, for example, legally cannot turn away abused or neglected children because funds don't keep pace.

In the nutrition programs, the obligation is not legal; it is moral. No needy youngster should be denied lunch at school or food stamps at home because his or her parents applied late in the year after the frozen allocation had been used up. Depriving youngsters of food would turn back the clock on public health.

Republicans argue that parents should take care of their children. They are right. That is the ideal. But children should not suffer because their parents cannot provide or because they do not fulfill their responsibilities. After the House acts, the Senate must review welfare reform very carefully to make sure that any new laws are tough on parents, not on children.

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