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Senate Committee Considers Needs of the Working Poor

With Congress poised to reauthorize the welfare program, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a February 14 hearing on the working poor.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) opened the hearing stating, “With the passage of the welfare reform law of 1996, it became a matter of public policy that the role of the federal government in reducing poverty is to promote work, rather than providing direct income support for poor families.” He noted, however, that over the past five years, though the welfare caseloads “have declined by more than 50 percent, we certainly haven’t seen a decline in the poverty rate.” He added, “We need to admit that there are families in this country who are working hard, but just barely getting by,…and we need to make substantial new investments in affordable, quality child care, in health care, and in safe, decent housing.”

Heather Boushey of the Economic Policy Institute shared some statistics on the working poor. “Nearly 37 million Americans go without some basic necessities, such as food, shelter, medical care,” she said. “For one out of every three working families with young children, income alone is not enough to make ends meet,” she continued, and added, “This was true, even in 1999, near the peak of the economic boom.”

She told the committee that families headed by single mothers are the most likely to experience hardships. “An overwhelming 70 percent of single parent families with two children fall below the family budget level,” she said. “Considering that nearly 90 percent of welfare recipients are single mothers, it is clear that welfare reform has not provided these families with the support they need to avoid material hardships,” she added.

Ellen Bravo of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women told the committee, “the whole area of work and whether the kinds of jobs women leaving welfare would find could sustain families was not part of the discussion during welfare reform in 1996.” She also stated, “A view was promoted that women were on welfare because they failed to work,” and “Employment was seen as a solution and movement off the roles as the measure of success.”

She cited a study completed by her organization and the Radcliffe Public Policy Center that interviewed parents, teachers, and employers. “In our conversations,” she said, “we found what works:

  • Access to decent and stable employment, usually by means of good education and training, which allows stability in transportation and housing;
  • Continuing access to income supports until income reaches self-sufficiency level;
  • Access to quality and stable care, the ability to pay for that, and a solid backup network of family and friends; and
  • Flexibility on the job when care needs surpass that care system, however strong it may be.”

According to Ms. Bravo, “One overlooked fact is how much job changeover low-income women experience, mostly because of family care reasons, and the harmful impact that has on kids.” She stressed to the committee that, “like families everywhere,” those in the study needed more control over their schedules, time off to address family illness in addition to time off for school activities and relaxation, “paid sick leave should fall among minimum labor standards,” and “public policy should include expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover more people and more caregiving situations and to provide a source of income during leave.”

On a positive note, Peter Edelman of Georgetown University Law Center testified that Congress has made some recent progress in helping low-income workers. He cited “the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the enactment of the State Child Health Insurance Program or SCHIP” as two examples.

Mr. Edelman told the committee that the economy has changed “drastically over the past half century,” and that “millions of manufacturing jobs disappeared” and were replaced by “lower-paying jobs in the service industry.” The second problem is “what it costs to live in the United States today,” he said, adding, “It’s a deadly equation.”

Recommending some remedies, Mr. Edelman highlighted the need for an increase in the minimum wage, providing a refundable child tax credit, providing health coverage for the uninsured, and providing a greater investment in child care. “It is important that we see it all as fitting together, as part of a three-dimensional set of policies that will add up to a fair shake for millions of people who aren’t getting a fair shake now.”

Additionally, Mr. Edelman presented a recommendation for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which is scheduled for reauthorization this year. “TANF assistance to people who have a low-wage job should not be subject to a time limit,” he said. “We should want people to improve their economic prospects by making full use of their talents, so education and training, especially in pursuit of a community college degree, should count as fulfilling work requirements,” he continued. “If we are interested in promoting marriage and fatherhood, we should invest in the economic prospects and the incomes of men as well as women,” he added. Lastly, he recommended that more of the “child-support dollars” should go directly to the children they are intended to help.

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