WASHINGTON — In the world of politics, compromise is considered an art. However, welfare reauthorization has been compromised, and it is no masterpiece. The Senate Finance Committee, which handles welfare reauthorization legislation, passed a bill that is the furthest move from the House or administration’s reauthorization proposals to date.
Most significantly, the committee bill proposes $6 billion in new funding for child care over the next five years. Last year the Democrats were pushing for $7 billion and the Republicans were standing firm at $1 billion.
This generous concession by the Republicans comes in addition to another billion dollar infusion to the Child Care Development Block Grant and an increase in flexibility of TANF funds (i.e., those provided by the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program created by 1996’s welfare reform law), freeing up money for child care. With caseloads reduced by half over the last eight years, states have roughly twice as much available spending per recipient as they did in 1996. Already, left-over funds from previous years can be used to fund child care for parents participating in work activities. Why earmark additional billions for child care?
One explanation is that child care programs compete against designer subsidies for general TANF dollars. For instance, the Parents as Scholars program, proposed in the Senate bill, would send welfare recipients to college. The committee is turning a social service program, meant to serve as a means of temporary assistance, into a scholarship program. In all the time spent arguing about reauthorization, the senators have forgotten what made welfare reform successful in the first place: work.
According to Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the committee, “I’ve compromised on extending the types of activities that can count towards the work requirement. Senator Baucus has compromised on the issue of federal funding for healthy marriage promotion activities.” Conspicuously absent from his explanation was the part where Republicans concede billions in new child care spending only if they can get stronger work requirements.
The parties have traded pet projects. Liberals want to let a broad spectrum of activities count as “work.” Conservatives want the government to act as a marriage counselor. The answer that they have arrived at is, “Why not both?” In the midst of a mounting national deficit and state budget crunches, the committee has decided to fund everything.
THE PROBLEM WITH THIS APPROACH is that it won’t work. The United States has been throwing money at the welfare system for decades, only to increase the need for and dependency on the system. The expenditures for the “war on poverty” have run to over $9 trillion (in 2003 dollars) over the last 40 years, but the greater cost has been the effect of a huge federal welfare system on society: the ballooning of welfare caseloads and out-of-wedlock births, the deterioration of two-parent families, and no noticeable decline in the poverty rate.
It was not until welfare reform — with the carrot of self-sufficiency and the stick of time limits — that the trajectory reversed. People began to leave the welfare rolls (by almost 60 percent nationwide) and look for work, recognizing that any job (even a low-paying one) would move them closer to independence.
The “take-home message” of welfare reform should be that expanding government social services does not work, but emphasizing work experience and self-sufficiency does. Yet one looks in vain for this lesson in the Senate’s welfare reauthorization proposal, which waters down the definition of work, expands unproven marriage-promotion programs, creates new education programs, and throws money at a debatable “child care crisis.” And at a price tag of over $1,000 per average taxpaying family (according to WashingtonWatch.com), it is clear Congress does not intend to reduce welfare spending.
Last month marked the ninth temporary extension of the 1996 reform, yet the House and Senate committee bills are as far apart as they’ve ever been. States are desperate to know what is going to happen. Are they going to have to appropriate money for workfare programs or sending recipients to college? Are they going to have to develop a network of marriage counseling services or additional child care options? Welfare reauthorization needs to pass, but not if it means reverting to the era of entitlements and dependency.
Jenifer Zeigler is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.
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