Welfare Marriage Plan Isn’t the Problem

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

March 20, 2002

President Bush’s welfare reform package has generated a firestorm of controversy over his marriage proposal. Frankly, I don’t understand why everyone is hopping mad about that when other chapters of the White House “Working Toward Independence” plan will be quite difficult for states to implement and likely to be harmful to poor families.

It’s not like it was a surprise that the president recommended Congress set aside some funds for marriage initiatives. Conservatives have been grumbling for years that states are not focusing on one of the 1996 welfare reform bill’s goals: ending dependence by promoting marriage. Some groups suggested that the states be forced to set aside 10 percent of the federal block grant for programs to support this goal. That would have meant each state had to spend its share of $1.6 billion finding a way to encourage women on welfare to get married.

Instead, the administration recommends committing a modest $300 million on a voluntary program for interested states and other providers.

I sympathize with those who argue that promoting marriage should not be a high priority in a world of limited resources to address the needs of those still on the rolls and others working but still poor. But, I’m much more concerned about other parts of the president’s plan.

The administration brags that instead of 10 hours of education and training weekly, states will now be able to include 16 hours of such activities for recipients. This, they say magnanimously, means states will have more flexibility than they do now to design plans to help welfare recipients find a job.

I say they are merely attempting to obscure the fact that it’s possible to add hours for education and training because the proposal also increases the overall work requirement for individuals. What they don’t often mention is the plan to severely limit work activities that count toward the remaining hours.

Next, the proposal would require states to have 70 percent of the caseload meet this new requirement, more than doubling the national participation rate over the next few years.

The net result is that states would have to create workfare programs to meet these requirements. If states don’t take this step, they’re likely to fail to meet the required work participation rates and face financial penalties.

And it gets worse. Since 1993, millions of welfare recipients have left the rolls and gone to work. The promise made and kept in the reform bill of 1996 to allow states to spend the resulting savings on work supports for poor families meant that states financed child care, transportation and education to help poor working families keep jobs and improve earnings. Under the Bush proposal, those funds would likely be diverted to pay for work programs.

Sure, the work requirements of the 1996 bill are widely viewed as part of the reason so many families left the rolls. But there’s also no evidence that increasing the hours required, or limiting work activities to a list so short that workfare becomes the preferred activity, will lead to more success.

The president’s proposal looks like a recipe for failure. States are going to have a hard time meeting these new requirements and families will find it difficult to comply with the rules.

Why is there so little discussion of these concerns? Because the proposal is—I hate to admit it—wicked smart. Elected officials will be loath to sound like they lack confidence in their ability to increase work requirements and participation. No matter how much state welfare administrators complain to their bosses that these proposals will break the bank at the cost of supports to poor working families, Governors won’t want to sound weak on work.

One can only hope that local elected officials will be willing to sound the alarm. In 1996, mayors led the campaign for welfare reform that made sense for cities. This time around, there’s even more reason for local officials to get involved in the debate.