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Tighter Rules Likely for Welfare Families

A Senate panel approves a bill that would force more recipients to find jobs, work longer hours.

September 11, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The lives of families relying on cash welfare benefits changed forever in 1996, when Congress set time limits on benefits and required many adult recipients to work. Soon, the conditions for receiving the government's support will probably get even tougher.

The House passed a bill in February that would require a larger percentage of a state's recipients to take jobs and to work longer hours.

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill that, although not as strict as the House version, would head in the same direction.

The activity in both chambers shows that Congress considers the 1996 welfare reform effort a success because it forced parents off the dole. Now, Congress wants to push parents a little harder.

The Bush administration proposed changes that were stricter than either the House-passed measure or the Senate panel's bill, but administration officials said the president supported both chambers' efforts.

Under the Senate version, the percentage of a state's caseload that would be required to be in jobs or other work-related activities would rise from the current 50% to 70% in 2008. The average number of hours of work required would increase from 30 hours a week to 34 for parents with children older than 6.

The committee voted 9 to 8, strictly along party lines, to send the bill to the Senate floor.

Child care was among the most contentious issues. Democrats argued unsuccessfully to increase the benefits of welfare recipients prodded into low-paying jobs who have to scramble to make arrangements for their children.

"Are we going to leave them at home unsupervised?" wondered Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D-Ark.).

Some Republican senators took the Bush administration's position of opposing additional funding for child care.

"Making people struggle a little bit is not necessarily the worst thing," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

When the full Senate debates the bill at a time still unspecified, Democrats and some Republicans indicate they will seek to provide more support to welfare recipients.

Already, 23 states have waiting lists of parents who qualify for child-care subsidies but cannot receive funding. California leads the nation with 280,000 children on its waiting list for care, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's child care bureau.

The panel accepted an amendment, offered by Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), that would make it easier for welfare recipients to go to college or vocational training classes and continue to get welfare benefits.

One of the most disputed new elements of the bill would provide $1.5 billion for activities to promote marriage.

Democrats argued that the money would be better used for child care. Marriage, said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), is a private decision.

"It's not something I think the government should interfere with," he said.

But Santorum said many welfare recipients needed marriage guidance because they grew up in communities where marriages were rare. "A married environment is the best place to raise a child," Santorum said.

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