TOPICS > Politics

Reforming Welfare

May 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The overhaul of the welfare system was a major change in U.S. social policy. Five years later, the debate is back. Kwame Holman begins our coverage.


KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush chose a Chicago United Parcel Service depot yesterday to promote his plan to extend and improve on the five-year-old welfare reform law. UPS has given jobs to people required by the law to go to work.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As we reauthorize the welfare bill, it is essential that a central component of that bill be work. We must set high standards. Over the next five years, the states, and working with the local governments, ought to place 70 percent of the people on welfare into a job. It is important not only for our society, it’s important for the people, because as you’re about to hear, a job is such an important part of a person’s dignity, a person’s future.

KWAME HOLMAN: In 1996, most congressional Democrats and Republicans coalesced behind President Clinton’s call to require able welfare recipients to go to work, and to provide them with the job training and child care support to do so.

Since then, about half of some four million recipients have left the welfare rolls. The welfare law expires this year, and House Republicans have taken their cue from Mr. Bush, offering legislation that would increase the amount of time adult welfare recipients must work or be in training from 30 hours a week to 40 hours.

States would have to increase the proportion of working welfare recipients from the current 50 percent to 70 percent by 2007. $2 billion in childcare subsidies would be added to the current $4.8 billion level. $50 million would be allocated to states for programs urging teenagers to abstain from sex before marriage, and $300 million to promote marriage among low-income parents. The bill also includes a provision to allow five states to use federal food stamps funds to design their own feeding and nutrition programs.

Congressional Democrats generally support renewing the welfare reform law, but have called for more funding of childcare for working parents, and for extending benefits to legal immigrants. The Republican bill and the Democrats’ alternative are scheduled to go to the House floor tomorrow.

JIM LEHRER: And now for a preview of tomorrow’s debate, we’re joined by two key Congressmen: Clay Shaw, Republican of Florida, who played a major role in the original passage of welfare reform five years ago; and Benjamin Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, a principal architect of his party’s alternative welfare plan.

First, looking back or I should say look at where we are right now, Congressman Shaw, how does welfare reform look to you five years later?

REP. CLAY SHAW: Well, I can tell it passed all of our expectations. I think really it’s the most important piece of social legislation in the last century. Look what we did — welfare rolls had been escalating each and every year – even during periods of prosperity. People were becoming more dependent. We broke the back of that dependency, and we gave people a life.

We have taken over three million children out of poverty. It’s been a wonderful program, and we have actually reduced the welfare rolls across this country by approximately 60 percent, and at the same time watching the people who have come off of welfare, they are actually doing a lot better than they did in welfare.

So it’s been a wonderful program. I always viewed this, Jim, as a rescue program. We were rescuing people from a corrupt system that paid them not to work to have kids and not to get married. It was a very self-destructive program.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Cardin, a wonderful program?

REP. BENJAMIN CARDIN: We certainly have made a lot of progress during the past five years, so I wonder why one of the major changes the Republicans are recommending is we make it more difficult for people in welfare to get education and training, as we came under current law.

I think it’s important to move to the next step and that is not only getting people off the cash assistance but getting people out of poverty. And I think we can do that by making the tools available to states and giving them the flexibility using the model for five years ago but moving to the next level. We shouldn’t be reducing resources; we need to increase them.

JIM LEHRER: But you believe it has accomplished something positive up to this point five years later?

REP. BENJAMIN CARDIN: Absolutely. I voted for the bill five years ago and I am proud of the progress we have made during the past five years. But we’ve got to make more progress now.

We shouldn’t be moving backwards. I’m very concerned about them taking away the flexibility of the states. Our governors are very concerned about the changes the Republicans are recommending, and we find that we can do a better job, let’s do it.

JIM LEHRER: What is your number one complaint about the number one thing that the Republicans are doing or are proposing?

REP. BENJAMIN CARDIN: If you limit me to one, I would say it’s education. People on welfare need to have education and training. It should be our number one priority for all Americans. We shouldn’t have a second standard for those that are on welfare.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what is it that they propose that you don’t like?

REP. BENJAMIN CARDIN: Currently, a state can use education and training as a primary work activity. The Republican bill removes that. So they have to be in 24 hours of core work, not including education and training, before they can even get any additional education. I think that’s wrong.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Shaw, why is that right?

REP. CLAY SHAW: Well, Jim, it’s interesting to see we’re sort of the victim of our own success. When welfare reform was done back in 1996, we put a provision in that the work requirements would be relaxed if states could reduce their workload by 50 percent or better.

Now almost all the states have done it. And the problem that we find is that the welfare system now is no longer concentrating on work as much as it should. We find right now all across this country that approximately 60 percent of the people on welfare are not fulfilling any work requirement. Now, I would disagree….

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, what are they doing instead?

REP. CLAY SHAW: They are just on welfare sort of like the old time system for all of these people. But let me comment briefly on what my friend Ben just said, because I have got a great deal of respect for him and his intellect particularly in this area as the ranking Democrat member on that subcommittee.

I would disagree with him. I think there is great flexibility in the states and I think also we do look at the question of education. You know, we require 40 percent — excuse me — we require 40 hours of work per week now but we give the state the flexibility to define work. They can define two out of three days of the five-day work time as on education or drug treatment other kinds of rehab. So there’s great flexibility in that, plus, four months of education can score as work. So it’s really important.

JIM LEHRER: And you don’t change that. You don’t propose changing that in your new bill?

REP. CLAY SHAW: Well, the new bill tightens that because now I think it goes – if my memory is correct – it goes from 30 hours to 40 hours. But the definition of work for two of the five days can be defined by the states.

So it introduces flexibility and also education. But we feel very strongly that we need the traditional type of work at least on three of those days. Remember these are people that are collecting welfare and we are pushing them to get out of that system.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Cardin, why shouldn’t folks be pushed into traditional work rather than education?

REP. BENJAMIN CARDIN: I think the current rules have worked. Most people believe that we have made a lot of success during the past five years, so why be trying to change it now? The states can impose these additional requirements if they want. If they think a person should be in traditional work for the entire week, a state can require that today.

But they may have people on their caseload that they feel would benefit from a more intense educational experience. They should be able to do that. It should be up to the states to determine what will work for a particular person on welfare. The federal government shouldn’t have one size fits all.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Shaw?

REP. CLAY SHAW: Well, this is a federal program. And we have converted it from a welfare program into a work program. We have converted our welfare offices into employment offices. When people come into these offices now, the first thing they try to do is to find them a job, not to count up what the benefits are.

So it is a work program and we’ve defined it more as a work program. Granted we are not allowing the states to allow over 60 percent or more of their caseload to be strictly on welfare without work. This is a work program and we’re proud of it.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Cardin, when this bill was originally debated five years ago the major complaint or the major hesitation among many Democrats in fact was that the safety net was not going to be there for a lot of people. A lot of people were going to be pushed off of welfare into programs and maybe that programs that didn’t lead anywhere et cetera. Has the safety net held pretty well?

REP. BENJAMIN CARDIN: Well, remember, we have had a very strong economy during the past five years. We also passed other legislation including the earned income tax credit that made work pay.

So we’ve done other things during the past five years that helped our success. Our concern is that there are many people who have left cash assistance that are still in poverty. We want people not only to leave cash assistance. We want them to get a job, but we also want them to be able to move up the economic ladder. We think all that should be important and should be the goals of welfare, and the states should have flexibility to accomplish those goals.

JIM LEHRER: Is there something in this – in the Republican plan that you believe will discourage people from going to work or in some way not help them if they do get into a bind or… is there something that you think is going affect people and keep them in poverty longer than they would be otherwise?

REP. BENJAMIN CARDIN: Well, absolutely. Forty-one of our states have already responded by saying that if these requirements were passed by the federal government, they are going to have to change their basic program and create more what’s known as workfare, where you have a government type of makeshift work, rather than getting a real job.

So, yes, we think the requirements will force states to set up workfare type of employment that’s not real employment, doesn’t lead to real jobs, and doesn’t lead to getting out of poverty.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Shaw, do you agree with that, that that could happen?

REP. CLAY SHAW: Well, no, I certainly don’t. The states that are complaining the loudest are the ones that have most people still on welfare without any work requirements. One of the best forms of education is teaching people to have a job whether it’s on-the-job training or whether it’s training for those two days that they don’t have to work.

But this is terribly important. We have got to have more faith in the human spirit. This is what has always been lacking in those that were against welfare reform in the first place. If you expect better, people will do better. It’s just like having certain goals and standards that you give your kids. You don’t set them low; you set them high. And we need to do that.

Just because somebody is poor and has children and is really down, we shouldn’t count them out and we should work with them and we contend to do that in a very humane way.

I might say that Ben mentioned the earned income tax credit. Someone making about $10,000 a year, which is right around minimum wage, the federal government will give them $4,000 to add to that in the earned income tax credit. Plus there’s housing allowances; there’s food stamps. There’s all these other programs and child care — Medicaid. All of these things are staying in place.

And I think it’s a great program; it’s a humane program; and we just must expect more and continue to raise our standards and don’t slip backwards.

JIM LEHRER: Don’t slip backwards, Congressman Cardin, is that what your suggesting?

REP. BENJAMIN CARDIN: Absolutely. That’s when I’m concerned about. They are going back to some of the requirements before the reform, particularly as it relates to denying education to people that are on welfare. Congressman Clay says have faith if people we do but also have faith in the states.

The states have shown the last five years they’ll get the job done but they have the flexibility and resources. What Congress needs to do on welfare reauthorization is to continue that flexibility to the states and we need to update the dollars particularly as it relates to daycare. Too many people are not going to be able to get real jobs unless we provide quality childcare for the children.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the Republican plan, as I understand it, Congressman Shaw, does call for an increase in childcare. Do you think that’s enough?

REP. CLAY SHAW: $2 billion. Well, it’s a lot of money but also — there’s also provisions in there that allow them to take some of the Tanive funds and put them into childcare.

JIM LEHRER: I’m sorry, the what kind of funds?

REP. CLAY SHAW: The Tanive. This is the type of welfare we’re talking about. And it’s interesting enough — Ben says we should have more faith in the states. That’s what I was saying five years ago – more faith in the states – and the states have come through.

The states were the laboratory that developed these systems Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin was wonderful. Florida was very progressive, Delaware, Michigan with Governor Engler.

There are some very good programs out there. We looked at it and we had more faith in the governors and the states. Now we think they are getting a little lack lax. And when you look at the states that are doing the job correctly and getting their people back to work, they have no complaints. This is a work program.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Cardin, then back to you, Congressman Shaw quickly, just listening to the two of you and doing the reading on this today, this debate does not have the ferocity that it had five years ago. You all are talking about fine tuning and disagreeing on fine tuning, am I correct about that, Congressman Cardin?

REP. BENJAMIN CARDIN: I think the changes that we’re talking about are important but I think the debate is different than it was five years ago. No one’s talking about going back to the old AFDC.

But let me just make one final point, if I might. The Congressional Budget Office tells us for the states to implement these new requirements, it would cost an additional $8 billion in childcare. Now, $2 billion might seem like a lot of money, but it won’t make the kind of progress we’re going to need.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Shaw, your overview.

REP. CLAY SHAW: Well, I think the fine tuning that is going on – and this is fine tuning – and it’s certainly going in the right direction, the legislation that we passed back that President Clinton signed on August 22, 1996, wasn’t perfect, but it was about as good as you could get at the time.

And when you looked at the rhetoric that was going on, they were saying the kids are going to be sleeping on grates. Well, nonsense that didn’t happen. We rose three million kids out of poverty. We’ve raised the standard of living for those that were on welfare and now have jobs. So we need now to continue the job and work together, and I’m sure at the end of the day that that is exactly what is going to happen.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you very much. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.