Black, Hispanic Caucuses Take Aim at Welfare BillA new House-passed welfare reform bill is drawing criticism from African American and Hispanic lawmakers who claim the plan would make it difficult for low-income public aid recipients to get the education needed to prepare for quality jobs.
The House voted 229 to 197 to approve the plan, which would raise work requirements for welfare recipients, including those with young children. The plan also would increase the percentage of welfare recipients who must work in order to qualify for benefits. The welfare reform legislation now goes to the Senate, which is working on its own plan to extend the 1996 welfare reform law.
Already, the 1996 law restricts the number of welfare recipients who can use education to meet work requirements. Critics say the number will decrease even further since most welfare recipients under the new bill would have to work 40 hours a week rather than the 25- or 30-hour requirement imposed in 1996.
President Bush “has put forth a bill that will penalize those who are trying so desperately to change their lives,” says Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a former Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman.
Critics note that while welfare rolls are down since 1996, many parents are barely making ends meet in low-wage jobs with few of the education or job skills required to advance to higher-paying occupations.
“If self-sufficiency can be defined as raising a family just on or below the poverty level, with little or no chance of increasing earning potential because the breadwinner is not equipped with competitive education or job training, then I agree with my colleagues that 1996 welfare reform has been a success,” says Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y.
Welfare recipients moving to work have an average wage of $6.61 per hour with no benefits, he said. The 40-hour work week requirement is “counterproductive to finding a long-term solution to poverty,” according to Serrano. That solution, he said, should include greater access to education. “Improving education never stops paying off for an individual or for society as a whole.”
The House bill also poses problems because it may specifically deny welfare recipients access to vocational education, traditionally one of the most popular options for welfare recipients. The bill “goes so far as to remove vocational education from the current list of work-related activities that count toward the core work requirement,” says Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas.
But Republicans counter that the new rules are consistent with expectations in the private sector, where most employees work 40 hours a week. They also claim that individuals may enroll in education and training for 16 hours once they log 24 hours per week.
Republicans also said the tougher work requirements — along with moderate child care funding increases — would help more people become self-sufficient. “What we need is what I call ‘tough love’ and the tough love that is needed is in this bill,” says Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J.
The $2 billion in new spending would include $1 billion on the discretionary side and $1 billion in entitlement spending based on the outline of the 1996 welfare reform law. Before approving the GOP bill, however, the House voted down two Democratic alternatives that could have provided another $11.5 billion in child care spending.
Under current law, parents generally must work no more than 30 hours a week, and parents of young children must work only 25 hours weekly. States also could have to raise the percentage of welfare recipients in work programs. Current law requires participation by 50 percent of welfare recipients, but the new plan would raise that figure gradually to 70 percent by 2007.
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