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House Committee Hearing Focuses on Working Families

The House Budget Committee on August 1 held a hearing to examine the challenges facing working families.

Committee Chair Jim Nussle (R-IA) noted that the hearing was recommended by Rep. Eva Clayton (D-NC) to discuss “the critical issue of how we can do a better job” helping working families make ends meet.

In her opening remarks, Rep. Clayton said, “These are the best of times for some, and for too many, this has been the worst of times.” There is a “great disparity in income” between the rich and the poor that is “compounded by race and gender,” she continued, adding that there are a high number of “at-risk children who live in poverty. These are serious issues.”

Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), ranking Member of the House Ways and Means Committee, cautioned that although economic prosperity and welfare reform have led to a decline in the poverty rate, “one out of every six children in the U.S. continues to grow up in poverty.” He urged the committee to focus on four main areas, including child care, child support, unemployment insurance, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program “as the committee considers future funding levels to help working families and to address poverty.”

Rep. Cardin recommended that the committee should “continue to fully fund TANF, increase funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), eliminate certain barriers to the unemployment system such as precluding part-time workers from receiving assistance unless they seek full-time work, and to change current law that actually penalizes states that send child support collections directly to families struggling to leave welfare.”

Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution discussed the effects of the 1996 welfare reform law on working families. He told the committee that welfare rolls “have declined by nearly 60 percent and that there has been a huge increase in the number of single mothers who work.” He said, “The increase in working mothers has been especially impressive among never-married mothers; these mothers exhibited a 40 percent jump in employment in just the three years leading up to 1999.” He added, “This spectacular rise in employment is especially important because in the past, never-married mothers were the least likely to complete high school or to have job experience and the most likely both to go on welfare and to stay on welfare for long spells.”

He cautioned the committee, however, about the “great temptation to reduce the funding for TANF.” This would be “a serious mistake,” he said. “Some families are worse off, and we need to find out how to help those families, and states have not been as aggressive as they should be,” he added.

Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) urged the committee to address child investment issues, stating, “We should have no hungry children in the richest nation on earth.” Yet, “every 44 seconds a baby is born into poverty; every eleven minutes a child is abused; every 20 minutes a child is killed by guns,” she said. “Seven million children are without adult supervision, and only 12 percent of kids whose parents are eligible for child care, actually get it,” she added.

She testified that the CDF conducted an independent study of what was happening to families leaving welfare that painted a picture that differed from the one presented by Mr. Haskins. She said specifically, the CDF study found that: “More than half of those who left welfare since 1996 had left for a job, but a third no longer had a job. Lack of child care was the reason most often reported for not working. Nearly 60 percent of those who were working had family weekly wages below the poverty line. More than half the employed parents had been unable to pay their rent, buy food, afford medical care, or had their telephone or electricity cut off.”

“I hope you will take action on the Food Stamp program in the agriculture budget,” she told the committee. Other recommendations included: enacting the Family Care Act (H.R. 2630) that would “provide health coverage for parents of children already enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP),” and “to make urgently needed investments in vastly underfunded children’s programs” such as the CCDBG and Head Start.

In sharp contrast to most of the witnesses, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation described welfare spending as “so large it is difficult to comprehend.” He said, “Welfare spending advocates often paint very alarming pictures of poverty in the United States in order to promote even more rapid increases in welfare spending.” He contrasted welfare spending with defense spending, saying that under the President’s budget, “nominal defense outlays would increase for the first time in a half decade,” and added, “Defense spending would rise by 20 percent over five years from $301 billion in FY2000 to $362 billion in FY2006. During the same period, however, welfare spending is scheduled to rise by 42 percent.”

He praised the 1996 welfare reform law, which toughens standards and requires “welfare mothers to work as a condition of receiving aid.” He recommended that “the workfare principles of the 1996 reform should be intensified and expanded.”

Mr. Rector said that “policymakers should embrace three basic goals,” which include limiting the future growth of welfare spending “to the rate of inflation or slower,” requiring “all able-bodied welfare recipients to perform community service work” in exchange for welfare benefits, and “support programs which foster and sustain marriage rather than subsidizing single parenthood.”

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