Congress Shouldn’t ‘Cut and Run’

Posted December 5, 2003 at 11:54am

I was a strong supporter of welfare reform in 1996 and am proud of the program’s success. Millions of Americans have moved from welfare to work, just as we hoped. Yes, there is still much more to be done — too many troubled families still on the rolls, too many families struggling to raise children in poverty — but, on the whole, it has been a triumph of public policy. We’ve come a long way.

Unfortunately, as Congress considers the reauthorization of welfare reform, there are some who want to cut and run — leaving the states and, more importantly, low-income families behind.

On the other hand, there are many of us who want to keep working together to reach a solution for America’s low-income families. The argument between the two camps has led us to our third year of debating welfare reform reauthorization, when the landmark success of the bill should have meant a quick and simple reauthorization. I am hopeful that when the full Senate takes up the welfare reform reauthorization measure in 2004, we will finally succeed in protecting and improving the program.

Under the 1996 welfare reform program, states were given the flexibility to design their own welfare-to-work strategies. Most states implemented some version of “work first,” which means focusing on moving recipients quickly into real wage-paying jobs and then providing supports, such as child care assistance, to help them succeed in the workplace. My state of Montana has developed an innovative and successful program. Since 1996, the number of individuals enrolled in welfare in Montana has been reduced by 46 percent.

A good reauthorization bill would build on this partnership with the states. Let them maintain their current successful strategies. Give them some new options to address especially troubled families. And provide more help in building the work support system.

Unfortunately, there are suggestions being offered in Congress that would implement an entirely different welfare-to-work strategy and wouldn’t provide sufficient resources for success. I am concerned by these proposals because it would harm the successful welfare partnership we have developed with the states. It would also mean that low-income working families, such as those who have left welfare in recent years and are still struggling to make it, would get less help.

This “cut and run” attitude is most evident in the House-passed welfare reform reauthorization bill. It is designed to force states to use expensive “workfare” models of welfare reform, under which welfare recipients participate in large-scale community service programs. For example, it de-emphasizes a welfare recipient looking for a real, private sector job in favor of a recipient participating in workfare programs. These workfare programs are currently an option and have been implemented in a few places, notably New York City. However, they have not been widely used because they are expensive and there’s no evidence they produce better outcomes than the “work first” approach. [IMGCAP(1)]

I’m also concerned that the House-passed welfare reform bill fails to provide adequate funding. As the traditional welfare rolls have fallen, states have used the freed up funds in the welfare block grant to support low-income working families — often those who have left welfare for work in recent years. This is common sense. Providing child care assistance can be the single most important factor for work place success for a single mother.

The lack of funding in the House-passed bill would mean states would have little choice but to shift funds away from programs that help keep low-income working families to more expensive workfare programs for those still on welfare. This is a mistake on policy grounds, since it will likely result in working families returning to the welfare rolls. Still worse, it means cutting and running on those struggling families whose success we have been celebrating.

I look forward to working together with Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley as we again examine welfare reauthorization next year. The bill Chairman Grassley has introduced is less directive about the welfare-to-work strategy a state should implement than the House-passed bill. However, I am concerned that it doesn’t provide states with enough new flexibility, such as in the areas of training and education programs, and doesn’t provide enough child care funding.

Welfare reform is working. Let’s build on this success and build on our partnership with the states. I am hopeful that by continuing to work together, we can achieve a successful bill next year that will strengthen existing programs and give further support to those who have successfully moved from welfare to work.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is ranking member of the Finance Committee.