Tightening the Welfare Noose
By Douglas J. Besharov
This article originally appeared in The New York Times, January 15, 1997.
During the debate over welfare reform, both liberals and
conservatives made the new law seem tougher than it really is.
Liberals, wanting to stir up opposition, painted bleak images of
millions of hungry children being tossed onto the streets. The right, eager to
be seen as champions of legislation ending the "culture of dependency," played
up the bill's harshest sounding provisions.
But all along, those familiar with the bill's specifics knew that
it contained dozens of obscure loopholes that would give states the ability to
soften the toughest of the Federal mandates.
These loopholes were not accidents; they were intended to give
states the freedom to consider their own particular needs when they refashioned
their welfare programs to meet the new Federal goals.
Now, however, officials at the Department of Health and Human
Services have said they are considering a strict legal interpretation of the law
that would close the most important loopholes.
Thus despite President Clinton's campaign promise to ease the most
Draconian aspects of the welfare law, his Administration is threatening to make
the worst fears of liberals come true.
Consider how the Administration's tough line would affect the
law's most notorious provision: the five-year limit on all Federal benefits.
The welfare law does allow states to exempt 20 percent of
recipients from this time limit. But most policy experts assumed that the law
would actually be much more flexible. For instance, most experts believed that
states would be able to give their own monies to families that reached the
five-year time limit with no Federal strings attached. Since the law requires
states to continue to spend at least 75 percent of their current welfare
budgets, most would have ample money on hand to help struggling families after
they are cut off by Washington.
Yet the Department of Health and Human Service's proposed approach
would attach so many obstacles to the way state aid is given -- states would be
required to place a higher number of recipients in jobs, cut off mothers who
haven't identified the fathers of their children and increase their supply of
welfare data to Washington -- that states will be very hesitant to help these
The department's tougher stance would also close a loophole that
would allow states to use Federal money to help families that have reached the
five-year cutoff. This loophole is a provision that applies the time limit only
to "a family that includes an adult who has received assistance . . . for 60
It had seemed that a state could have provided assistance to a
welfare mother for 59 months, at which point it could have terminated her grant
but then continued Federal aid to her children. States even thought they would
have the ability to raise a child's grant to compensate for the loss of a
Some might say that continuing benefits in this way would further
dependency. But states could dole out such payments to children in gradually
shrinking increments, thus giving mothers more time to achieve self-sufficiency
without shutting them off cold turkey.
There were other ways that states expected to enhance their
programs. Many had planned to use their money for programs that would help
families avoid welfare, including subsidized child care, a beefed-up state
earned income tax credit, transportation subsidies, one-time grants to families,
job counseling, substance-abuse treatment and parenting classes.
Unfortunately, the Administration's tough talk puts state
financing for such services and benefits in question. For example, if a state
gave a poor working mother $30 a week in child-care subsidies, the department
might now count this against her time limit on welfare. Thus if she received
subsidies for five years and then lost her job, she would be ineligible for
assistance, even though she had never actually been on welfare.
The Department of Health and Human Services insists that it has no
political agenda in wanting to interpret the law so strictly. A spokesman told
me that the agency is only concerned with clearing up what it considers several
murky passages in the law that "require further legal analysis."
But few experts doubted the intent of these murky passages. If not
for the promise of state flexibility, support for the bill would have dropped
and it might never have been made law. If the Administration takes back that
promise of flexibility, it would undermine the careful balance achieved in the
final bill and could create a welfare program that really does hurt the
After all, almost half of all welfare mothers have been on the
rolls for more than five years, more than 60 percent are high school dropouts
and half of them have never held a job. It is likely that far more than 20
percent of welfare recipients will not be able to support themselves after five
Conservatives, too, should be unhappy with the Administration's
strict new line. For all their rhetoric, they know that if welfare reform is to
retain public support, states must be given the freedom to provide an adequate
safety net -- even as they attack the problem of long-term dependency.
The Department of Health and Human Services should back off and
interpret the new law in the context of the political compromises that made it
possible. A rigid interpretation of the law would only hurt the poor and make it
harder for states to reform welfare.
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