State Officials Leery of Changes to Welfare Rules

Putting welfare recipients to work is at the heart of the federal welfare law passed 10 years ago. But while the original law allowed states to decide how best to meet federal goals, some officials fear that the Bush administration will remove some of the flexibility that they say has made the law a success.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Putting welfare recipients to work is at the heart of the federal welfare law passed 10 years ago, but the original law gave states a lot of freedom to interpret that message. Since Congress renewed the law late last year, it's now up to the Bush administration to come up with the specific regulations that states will have to meet. And as the deadline for those rules approaches, welfare officials fear they could lose the flexibility they say made the 1996 law a success. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

This time around, one thing is certain. States will have to prove 50 percent of their welfare recipients are working. So the big issue, one that has huge ramifications for the 1.8 million American families on welfare, hinges on one question. What is work? Ten years ago, the federal government gave the states plenty of room to come up with their own answers. But Wade Horn, President Bush's point man on welfare, thinks that strategy backfired.

Dr. WADE HORN (Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children and Families): For example, some states define under work preparation activities, bed rest as a countable activity. Now, I don't think most Americans think resting in bed should be countable as a job preparation activity.

JONES: Horn is Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families at HHS. His office is rewriting the rules for welfare, following instructions from Congress, after the welfare law was renewed in February. It's an update of the historic 1996 legislation that revamped welfare, creating the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. It set a five-year lifetime limit on getting cash welfare payments. That and other changes sparked intense debate about America's policy toward the poor. Horn thinks getting serious about the rules is the best way to help people who need cash from the government.

Dr. HORN: As long as you are on TANF, you are going to be poor. The only way to not be poor is to become engaged in activities that ultimately lead to work, and particularly full-time, full-year work.

JONES: That's the Bush administration mantra. But state officials, like Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire, think the issue is by far more complicated.

Governor CHRISTINE GREGOIRE (Democrat, Washington): We surely don't need cookie-cutter approaches, onerous new demands, penalties as a threat, when we have now turned the corner and have achieved amazing success in the states.

JONES: Gregoire says state welfare officials are worried about what the new rules will, or won't allow them to count as work, or work participation. If a welfare recipient needs substance abuse treatment or mental health counseling before they're able to work, would that count? And would people in a TANF job training program get sick days? Actually, they worried about the same things 10 years ago, but back then there was more time to debate the possible impact of welfare rules. Elaine Ryan is Deputy Executive Director of the American Public Human Services Administration. She says there was also room at the table for anti-poverty advocates.

Ms. ELAINE RYAN (Deputy Executive Director, American Public Human Services Administration): Now, we don't have that opportunity.

JONES: Ryan's group worked with the Clinton administration and other anti-poverty groups as the original rules were developed. They were part of a chorus that insisted states keep the flexibility to shape their programs.

Ms. RYAN: I'll never forget going down to North Carolina, going to a church, and what they had in the back of the church was a ride-sharing agreement, so that the welfare clients who might need to go from a childcare placement to their job would be paired with a parishioner who rode that way anyway.

JONES: That kind of creativity helped most states' welfare caseloads drop dramatically. She thinks that approach doesn't acknowledge what welfare officials are faced with.

Ms. RYAN: That's a big paradigm shift and, frankly, a big concern for states.

JONES: But policy analyst Larry Meadee thinks that's exactly what states need.

Dr. LARRY MEADEE (Professor, New York University): In fact, the country as a whole never reached a participation rate of more than about a third, even though by 2002 it was supposed to be 50 percent.

JONES: Meade is a professor in the Politics Department at New York University. He says the public has never objected to helping the needy.

Dr. MEADE: But it does object to employable adults living on welfare without employment. It wants them to work alongside the taxpayer, so that the effort is shared.

JONES: But with only about five months between the law's passage and its publication in July, there's no way to tell if the new laws will benefit or stymie state welfare programs.

Rachel Jones, NPR News, Washington.

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