WASHINGTON, May 17 (UPI) -- More emphasis should be put on getting former welfare recipients out of poverty, according to a recent report from an influential Washington think tank.
The report comes as the U.S. Senate prepares to debate its way through reauthorization proposals for the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, with general acceptance that welfare work requirements are likely to get tougher when the reauthorization is passed on Oct. 1.
"We think there is a lot of consensus and merit in keeping a strong focus on work -- employment is up and poverty is down," said Andrea Kane, outreach director of the Brookings Institution's welfare reform policy team, which published the book-length report, "Welfare Reform and Beyond: The Future of the Safety Net."
"But at the same time, people are working at low-wage, unstable jobs and many with no health insurance," Kane said. "There are some concerns about putting too much focus on a relatively small number of parents left on welfare, at the expense of those who already left welfare, and other low income families. Reauthorization has to help people stay off welfare and succeed."
She spoke at a forum on May 2 that marked the release of the Brookings report.
On May 16, the House of Representatives passed a bill reauthorizing the 1996 act -- based on President Bush's proposal and encompassing all of the ideas the Republicans have put forward regarding welfare reform -- that would require welfare recipients to commit 40 hours a week to work and work-related activities -- up from the 30 hours a week currently required. The House bill would require 24 hours at core-work activities, and 16 hours at work-related activities, to be defined by the individual states. Core-work activities usually refer to non-trained labor such as picking up trash or clerical work; work-related activities are typically job training and education.
Current law requires a minimum of 20 hours a week at core-work activities and, for parents with children at least six years old, an additional 10 hours at work-related activities.
As part of the original Welfare Reform Act, formally named the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 and known as PRWOR, the section called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, repealed the individual entitlement to welfare and replaced open-ended federal payments to the states with block grants. TANF contains strong work requirements, sanctions for individuals who fail to comply with them, and a five-year limit on the use of federal dollars for case assistance to individual families.
Besides raising work requirements, the House bill just passed, contains provisions that continue to deny welfare to legal immigrants, and that encourage marriage and support abstinence form premarital sex.
"The (original 1996) reform legislation was more successful than was expected," said Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at Brookings. "There has been a 60 percent decline in caseloads, and 60 percent of the mothers are working."
This success, said several policy analysts, does not mean that policymakers can stop thinking about those on -- or recently off of -- welfare.
Heidi Hartman, president and chief operating officer of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, says that welfare reform should pay more attention to people after they leave the system.
"Counselors in welfare-to-work programs place women in mostly traditional, low-paying careers, like cosmetology," Hartman said. "(But) there is a higher demand for job training than what former welfare women are receiving."
Others are most concerned with those remaining on welfare: because they are the hardest ones to employ; their five-year limit could run out before they find jobs.
"A decrease in caseload doesn't necessarily mean that they left the welfare system for jobs -- the newly imposed five-year time limit could have just run out," Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said at the Brookings forum. "The House and Senate differ on whether to reward states for employment or for caseload reduction. We would eliminate caseload reduction credit. "
There is strong support in the Senate for a tripartisan bill that would retain the current 30-hour workweek limit, but increase the required work hours to 24 from 20, with six hours a week spent on work-related activities, said Breaux, a co-sponsor of the bill. The other sponsors of this bill are Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
"The tripartisan bill is said to incorporate the best elements of the Bush proposal," Kane said. "It would increase work requirements to include 70 percent of the case loads --currently 50 percent of welfare cases have to be involved in work."
The House and the Senate differ dramatically on the question of childcare. The House bill would add $1 billion over five years to the current child care budget of $4.8 billion per year, which doubled child-care funding from 1996 through 1999. Breaux's proposal would add $11 billion over five years for childcare.
"Up to 35 percent of a person's income can go to child care, and 40 percent of women who receive child-care subsidies are more likely to stay at their job for over two years," said Heather Boushey, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "We found that 12 percent of eligible children weren't receiving anything, because the funding wasn't high enough or there weren't enough child care facilities. Also, many states have chosen to lower the limits on eligibility."
Boushey favored the Democratic bill, proposed by Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, and voted down by the House, that would have increased funds for child care and allowed more education and training to be counted as core work.
"Child care funding is a big issue. More funding would take some pressure off the set TANF block grant, which might not be increased for inflation," said Kane. Current TANF funding is $16.5 billion a year, with a separate block grant for childcare. Democrats would provide an inflationary increase equivalent to $6 billion over five years for TANF.
Michael Tanner, director of Health and Welfare Studies at the libertarian think tank Cato Institute is skeptical about the new welfare proposals.
"Both Democrats and Republicans threaten to undermine the success of welfare reform," Tanner said. "Democrats would create a new entitlement to welfare benefits and dramatically increase spending for government-support programs. The goal of welfare reform should be to help people become independent of government programs, not just shift them from one program to another.
"Republicans would weigh down the program with costly and ineffective proposals for marriage and job training," Tanner said, referring to the House bill's inclusion of $300 million for experimental programs supporting marriage.
Other think tank experts doubt that welfare reform is the sole source of the improved conditions.
"Other factors that have helped low-income working families since 1996 were the economy in the late 1990s, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid and child care," the Brookings report said. "Low- and moderate-income families were eligible for $52 billion in assistance from such programs, compared with the $6 billion they would have been eligible for under the 1984 law."
"In the current recession, caseloads are rising in most states," Sawhill said.