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Senate Subcommittee Considers Bill to Improve Welfare Reform

Legislation (S. 685) designed to strengthen working families who have left welfare was the subject of an October 11 hearing by the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security and Family Policy.

Sponsored by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), the bill contains six legislative initiatives aimed at helping low-income families stay off welfare, including:

  • Providing grants that would promote responsible fatherhood programs, such as mentoring and counseling initiatives to encourage fathers to become more involved in the lives of their children, and job training to better enable non-custodial parents to contribute to the support of their children.
  • Allowing states to distribute child support payments directly to custodial parents and their children. Under current law, parents receiving cash assistance under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) must relinquish their right to child support payments to the state during the period when they are receiving benefits.
  • Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to allow families with three or more children to benefit from the tax credit. Current law allows low-income families to receive the EITC only for a maximum of two children.
  • Restoring funding for the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) to the $2.38 billion level promised in the 1996 welfare reform bill.
  • Providing tax credits for employers who offer child care to their employees.
  • Reauthorizing the Safe and Stable Families Program to include scholarships for children aging out of the foster care system.

Subcommittee Chair John Breaux (D-LA) opened the hearing stating, “While welfare reform was about creating working families, our next challenge is to help strengthen these working families….” He continued, “Today, I want to talk about the potential for federal programs such as those in our Strengthening Working Families bill to lift working families out of poverty, and to make sure that the children are not the victims of the new welfare system.”

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the Ranking Member on the subcommittee, said that he hoped the witnesses would highlight the decline in welfare spending over the past decade. “There are 2.4 million fewer people on welfare, and we have reduced welfare spending by 61 percent,” he stated.

Most of the witnesses expressed strong support for S. 685. Sharon Daily of Catholic Charities said that the bill “would greatly contribute to the living standards of the working poor.” Enactment of the proposals in the bill “will address the growing disparity between rich and poor, and give low-income workers the help they need to not only survive, but to thrive,” she stressed.

Ms. Daily focused her comments on three initiatives in the bill, including restoring funding for the SSBG, allowing child support payments to go directly “to the mother,” and reauthorizing the Safe and Stable Families Program. “In his State of the Union Address, the President promised $200 million in additional funds this year, and $1 billion over five years, for the Safe and Stable Families Program,” she told the subcommittee. “Your colleagues on the House side have chosen to ignore that commitment” for added funds for the program, she said, referring to the actions by the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources (see The Source, 9/26/01, p. 3).

Additionally, Ms. Daily highlighted the need for a “permanent change in the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program to allow part-time workers, most of whom are mothers with small children, who are laid off and meet all other eligibility criteria to receive benefits.”

Christine James-Brown of the United Way also expressed support for the legislative initiatives in S. 685, especially restoring funding for the SSBG. “Each year, SSBG helps more than 11 million individuals,” she said. “In 1998, 803,000 older Americans and more than 570,000 persons with disabilities benefited from SSBG, and state and local prevention and treatment services to abused and neglected children reached more than 1.3 million children and their families.”

Representing the business community, Rodney Carroll of the Welfare to Work Partnership testified that “the Partnership was set up in 1997 as a direct response to the sweeping welfare reform legislation in order to mobilize the business community to hire and retain those transitioning off of welfare.” He told the subcommittee that the group started with only a handful of businesses, and has grown to include 22,000 businesses nationwide. “Businesses are ready to hire people from welfare,” he declared, even in this weakened economy. He said that many businesses were affected by the events of September 11th, but “all sectors of industry were not equally affected.” In a survey conducted by the Partnership, “we found that two-thirds of our businesses report a continued need for entry-level workers.” For instance, Ford is “65,000 technicians short, and there are law firms that hire ex-offenders” for clerical positions, he said.

Sen. Breaux asked the witnesses to identify some of the most difficult problems facing working families.

“The hardest problems are not for mothers of young children, but rather for mothers of pre-teens and teens,” responded Ms. Daily. “These kids see their parents working day and night for chump change, and they lose respect,” she said.

Sandra Purgham testified on behalf of Mary Frank of Goodwill Industries, who was unable to attend the hearing. She told the subcommittee that Ms. Frank is a 38-year-old mother of two children who works for Goodwill Industries and “who is trying to break the welfare cycle.” But “sometimes it seems the government doesn’t want you to succeed,” she said.

“Many fathers are discouraged about making child support payments because part of the money goes to the government.” She continued, “Mary does not qualify for child care because she gets welfare benefits,” adding that Mary’s 16-year-old daughter became pregnant and had a baby. “Now Mary is also responsible for the baby, but neither one qualifies for child care. Mary’s daughter must be 18 to qualify…and it seems like welfare is a double-edged sword,” she said.

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