Misunderestimating the Welfare Debate

Margy Waller
Margy Waller Visiting Fellow, Economic Studies and Metropolitan Policy, The Brookings Institution

May 12, 2004

THE FIRST Senate debate on reauthorizing the historic 1996 welfare law started last month and ended a few days later when the GOP majority pulled the bill. Many reviews of the deliberations accuse Democrats of blocking the bill. That misunderestimates the role of the president.

Republicans focused on allegations that states aren’t placing enough welfare recipients in work. This argument has been a mantra for conservatives ever since the president called for increasing work requirements when he slapped down his reauthorization proposal in 2001.

A Republican president criticizing his peers over implementation of what the Heritage Foundation calls the “most successful social policy reform of the past half-century”? An ex-governor calling for reduction of state flexibility? The same governor who asked President Clinton to let states set welfare policy without federal interference: “I don’t want the will of Texans superseded by the federal government”?

This might make sense if there were facts behind the rhetoric. But states have reported engaging nearly two-thirds of all recipients in work. Why not more? There are always new people on the rolls awaiting assignment, parents temporarily excused to care for a sick child and the like.

Researchers find states need more flexibility, not less, to increase participation. And the cost of implementing the work requirements will cause states to reduce their spending on supports to working-poor families.

Still, such a shift might be defensible if there was evidence that it would lead to better outcomes. But there isn’t any.

But the Senate GOP loyally took up the fight, even boldly pursuing items on the administration’s latest must-do list: funds to promote marriage and money for faith-based providers.

Perhaps polls finding that voters are no longer certain about the president’s compassion, just his conservatism, explain his demand for expansion of faith-based funding. His failure to sign any faith-based legislation since making the commitment to it right after moving into the White House is presumably a campaign liability.

Not only did the White House send its lobbyists over to the Senate to push for this last-minute change, but the president’s staff released a statement making clear his opposition to one-thin-dime of more child-care money.

This was bad news indeed for those encouraged by strong bipartisan Senate support for more child-care funding. The money was a bright enough spot in this retro legislation to warrant moving it forward.

Now there’s real concern about the negotiations over House and Senate differences. The House leadership has refused to add more than a token amount of new child-care funding, and the president has taken their side.

That White House statement probably wiped out any reason left for progressives to support the bill. So it was surprising to hear the name-calling when Sen. Ted Kennedy put forward an amendment to hike the minimum wage. Republicans blamed Democrats for blocking the bill with a “non-germane” amendment.

Perhaps they’ve forgotten that Congress passed the last increase in 1996 along with the welfare bill: “The goal of welfare reform is to make people financially self-sufficient. Providing a livable minimum wage is one incentive,” said Republicans at the time.

This year, they yanked the bill and assert that Democrats are “killing additional money for child care.” Didn’t the senators notice that the president already promised to try to do just that?

Next up: Shotgun legislation.

House leaders seem poised to oppose another of the three-month extensions that keep money flowing to states – unless the senators also accept the president’s marriage proposal.

But before they go there, moderate members on both sides of the aisle should play matchmaker by recommending a multi-year reauthorization of the current law. Congress simply isn’t going to resolve the current differences this election year.

Working families shouldn’t suffer the consequences.