More Can Be Done to Reduce Welfare Rolls

Posted December 5, 2003 at 11:51am

The welfare reforms enacted in 1996 ended the individual entitlement to assistance, contributed to a decline in the welfare rolls and led to more parents working. In addition, employment by mothers most likely to go on welfare has increased, and child poverty has declined. States are using funds formerly spent on welfare for child care and other help for working families. The success so far of the “work first” a of an emphasis on adult attachment to the workforce.

Today, there is more that we should do to help families who live in persistent poverty achieve self sufficiency. Even though progress has been made, the majority of adults currently receiving assistance report zero hours of work activity. Additionally, because of the decline of the welfare caseload, many states lack a meaningful work requirement.

Last summer, the Senate Finance Committee passed the Personal Responsibility and Individual Development for Everyone Act. It would usher in the next phase of welfare reform by improving key aspects of the 1996 act.

The need for the next phase of welfare reform is compelling. The average welfare check for a family receiving cash assistance is $351 dollars a month. While there are other forms of support such as child care, transportation and food stamps available to these families, children are living in a situation where the cash assistance available to them is little more than $11 a day. In other words, families stuck on welfare exist in poverty.

That is an unacceptable situation. The federal government, partnering with the states, must do better by these families. Allowing these families to remain in such extreme poverty is both detrimental to these families and bad for children.

The effects have direct implications for children’s well-being. Children living in deep and persistent poverty do not thrive. The quicker these parents are off cash assistance and into meaningful work, the better for the children.

Research suggests that employment for parents has beneficial effects on their families. Parents who are employed experience less depression and parenting stress than parents who have no attachment to the workforce.

We should help these families by encouraging parents to develop a strong attachment to the workforce. Adults receiving assistance need to leave the isolated and demeaning world of dependence and know the dignity and self-esteem available in the world of work. Adults and their families do not leave poverty by increasing their dependence on assistance. They leave poverty by finding meaningful employment and then improving their work skills so that they may secure better paying employment.

Welfare policies implemented to raise incomes and help families out of poverty should include a requirement that work-ready adults increase the time they spend in meaningful activities. Many states are currently running innovative and helpful programs. However, states should improve these existing programs and develop additional programs to work with these families in job-readiness and other “soft skills” preparedness activities. [IMGCAP(1)]

Additionally, two out of four purposes of the original 1995 welfare reform bill emphasize promoting and encouraging marriage and two-parent families. So far, few states have implemented policies to address these purposes.

Healthy two-parent families have significant implications for the economic well-being of children. The poverty rate for all children in married-couple families is 8.2 percent. By contrast, the poverty rate for all children in single-parent families is four times higher at 35.2 percent.

Research also demonstrates that children born or raised in single-parent families are more at risk for a range of social problems, including academic failure and crime.

Clearly, we can and we should be doing better by these families. The Senate Finance Committee has taken an important first step by passing PRIDE. The House passed a welfare reform bill in February. The programs authorized under the 1996 act have been funded through a series of extensions. The latest extension expires at the end of March 2004. This legislation should be one of the first items that the Senate considers when the 108th Congress reconvenes.

PRIDE maintains many of the key reforms of the 1996 act. The next phase of welfare reform should build on the current welfare system. The major themes of the PRIDE bill are strengthening work, improving state flexibility and promoting marriage and family.

Some believe that the next phase of welfare reform should be an opportunity to increase the amount of time that can be spent in education and training activities. Some believe that the next phase of welfare reform should be devoted to increasing the work requirement on states and individuals. Some believe that strengthening the family and enhancing marriage promotion activities are key to moving families out of poverty.

PRIDE finds a balance among these perspectives, adopting an approach that highlights an increased emphasis on work and work readiness activities as well as increasing the flexibility for states to engage adults in education and training programs. PRIDE also provides resources to encourage states to develop innovative family formation programs, while making it clear that participation in these programs must be voluntary and the program must be developed in coordination with domestic violence professionals.

Recent research has demonstrated that this blended approach is the most effective way to move families out of deep and persistent poverty. The improvements in the PRIDE bill will go a long way to meeting this important priority. It is now up to the 108th Congress to make the PRIDE bill a reality.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is chairman of the Finance Committee.