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Bill Tightens Rules for 2-Parent Welfare Families

January 31, 2006|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The wide-ranging spending-cut bill scheduled for a final House vote on Wednesday includes provisions toughening welfare regulations, including work requirements on two-parent welfare families that experts say is almost impossible to meet.

The Republican-backed bill would hold adults in two-parent families to a higher work standard than those in single-parent families. States that failed to meet the standard would lose some of their federal welfare money unless they chose to exclude two-parent families from assistance.

California, home to the largest number of two-parent families on welfare, would be hardest hit, and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has written to the California congressional delegation in protest.

Sharon Parrott, a welfare expert with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, said it was "the height of hypocrisy" for congressional Republicans, with the acquiescence of President Bush, to promote policies that would give states incentives to discriminate against two-parent families. "This isn't a pro-family policy," she said.

There are no good statistics on two-parent families, which are still the exception on welfare rolls. Two years ago, the government said there were 114,000 such families nationwide, 44,000 in California. A more recent estimate put the number of such families nationwide at 105,000.

The bill before the House provides that the adults in 90% of the two-parent welfare families must, between them, put in 35 hours a week either working, training for work, or participating in other job-related activities.

States would face an easier work requirement for their single-parent families. Half of all parents would have to work 20 hours a week if they have a child under 6, or 30 hours if their children are older.

Mark H. Greenberg of the Center for Law and Social Policy used some rough data from the Congressional Research Service to estimate that 35,000 two-parent welfare families met the 35-hour-a-week standard. That is 61,000 families short of the 90% requirement.

Welfare policy is only one of many flashpoints in the bill, which reduces federal spending -- primarily in social programs -- by about $40 billion over the next five years. The higher education community is up in arms over changes in student loan programs, which account for $12.7 billion of the spending reductions. Cuts from Medicaid benefits, estimated at $7 billion, also are coming under fire.

The nonpartisan state budget analyst's office in Sacramento has estimated that the legislation would achieve its goals by passing on billions of dollars in costs to the states, including $3.1 billion to California.

House Democrats hope to pick up enough Republican support to defeat the bill. The House has already considered the legislation twice, passing it last month by two votes.

If the House passes the bill and sends it to Bush for his signature, Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Evan Bayh of Indiana said they would introduce legislation to repeal the strict work standard for two-parent families.

"While Republicans and Democrats certainly have their disagreements about how best to promote economic stability and long-term self-sufficiency for low-income families," they wrote to Republican congressional leaders, "we all agree on the benefits to children of growing up with two responsible parents."

Current law includes provisions similar to the bill's work requirements, but their effect is cushioned in two ways. In one, states' work requirements are reduced by the decline in their welfare caseloads since 1995, a year before Congress created the welfare reform program, known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Thanks to the economic boom of the late 1990s, welfare rolls have shrunk in every state.

Beyond that, some states, including California, have shifted some or all of their two-parent welfare families to state-financed programs that do not have to meet the federal work requirement.

The bill awaiting a final House vote would deny states these refuges by shifting the base year for measuring caseloads from 1995 to 2005 and by applying federal work requirements to welfare recipients receiving only state aid.

These provisions emerged from a House-Senate conference committee, which wrote a compromise between the versions of the spending-cut bill passed separately by the two chambers. Neither the House nor the Senate had approved such provisions originally.

"Republican leaders snuck this into a complicated budget bill in the dead of night with no public debate," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.

Welfare experts believe the changes would put the work requirements all but out of reach, especially for two-parent families.

"Parents who become ill and miss just a few days of scheduled activities will not count toward their state's participation requirement," Parrott said. Neither, she said, will parents who must take their children to doctors' appointments or who are waiting for slots in job-training programs.

"For these reasons," she wrote in a draft report, "a 90% participation rate is widely understood to be unattainable."

Getting all states to reach a 50% work-force participation rate for all families is daunting enough. In 2003, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy, 30% of welfare recipients would have met the work rules, and all but five states fell short of 50%.

In California, 70,000 of the 262,000 welfare families would have met the new work requirements for single parents. That is 61,000 short of the 50% standard.

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