Friday, February 14, 2003

House Passes New Welfare Reforms

WASHINGTON — Keeping a pledge to require more work from welfare recipients, House Republicans passed a plan Thursday that would also give hundreds of millions of dollars to programs promoting marriage.

The Republican plan, passed on a 230-192 vote, mirrors a plan first put forth by President Bush as an improvement to the 1996 law deemed a success by both parties.

"A check in the mail every month won't teach responsibility. It won't build confidence," said Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio.

But Democrats say the new rules, including one that requires 70 percent of recipients to work 40 hours a week by 2007, demand too much from the poorest Americans.

"Too many people are drowning in a sea of poverty," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. "Welfare, to work, should not merely toss the poorest Americans a life preserver to help them float along."

The bill keeps certain provisions of the 1996 welfare overhaul, including limiting people to five years of benefits over their lifetimes and banning aid programs for legal immigrants.

It also continues to give states $16.5 billion each year for welfare-to-work programs and increases spending on child care.

But unlike the earlier bill, recipients who work three days a week in regular jobs or government-created workfare positions and train or receive counseling during the other two days will no longer be allowed to use the time for vocational education classes.

Studies find that most people who have left welfare are working, earning more than they received from the government but not enough to escape poverty. Democrats say that with the struggling economy, people need more help in training and child care, and legal immigrants should be entitled to some of the aid.

The bill includes up to $300 million per year for experiments promoting marriage, as well as another $50 million for programs that promote abstinence from sex until marriage and don't discuss contraception.

Both programs have attracted strong opposition, with opponents saying neither has been proven effective. Some worry the marriage program could push people into bad marriages.

House Democrats, who unsuccessfully tried to stop the bill from moving to a floor vote without a committee vote, voiced few complaints about the marriage and abstinence programs, instead concentrating on the central issues of welfare. Two Democratic alternatives failed and Democrats offered few amendments.

One bill that Republicans defeated would have restored benefits to legal immigrants and allowed more education, training and child care benefits. Another version -- offered in memory of the late Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii -- would have offered even more cash to those programs and more money for states. It also would have let states continue to pay benefits to people beyond the five-year limit as long as they were complying with welfare rules.

Since peaking in 1994, the number of families receiving monthly welfare checks has fallen by nearly 60 percent. The Bush administration said Thursday that the national total continued to fall through September, albeit by a tiny amount.

At the same time, the rolls are rising in more than half the states. And data released this week found that after several years on the rise, the portion of poor children with working parents fell in 2001.

The GOP bill matches one approved by the House last year, but which died in the Senate. The 1996 law, which expired last fall, has been extended several times to give Congress more time to act. The Senate has not yet touched welfare reform legislation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.