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Subcommittee Considers Effects of Welfare Reform

With Congress poised to reauthorize the 1996 welfare reform law (P.L. 104-193), the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources held a March 15 hearing to review some of the law’s effects.

Subcommittee Chair Wally Herger (R-CA) said the law’s “impacts have been, in a word, remarkable,” adding: “We will be building on a strong foundation, but there is still a lot of work to do.” He called for a reauthorization measure that will move welfare reform further toward the main goals outlined in drafting the 1996 law: providing assistance to needy families, ending dependence on government by promoting work and marriage, preventing and reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

Highlighting the two latter goals, Rep. Herger voiced support for “fatherhood” programs designed to encourage fathers to participate in the lives of their children and to marry the mothers of their children. During the 106th Congress, the House approved legislation pertaining to fatherhood programs, but the Senate did not take up the matter (see The Source, 11/12/99, p. 1; 9/8/00, p. 1).

Cynthia Fagnoni of the General Accounting Office testified on her agency’s follow-up research on welfare reform. Stating that there has been “a 50 percent decline in the number of families receiving cash welfare—from 4.4 million in August 1996 to 2.2 million as of June 2000,” she added: “While economic growth and state welfare reforms have been cited as key factors to explain nationwide caseload decline, there is no consensus about the extent to which each factor has contributed to these declines.”

Ms. Fagnoni told the subcommittee that 25 percent of individuals still receiving cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant also were engaged in work activities in 1999—an increase from 17 percent in 1997. However, most of those remaining on the welfare rolls are not employed in any capacity. “This may be because many current recipients have characteristics that make it difficult for them to work,” including poor health, physical disability, lack of high school diploma, limited work experience, exposure to domestic violence, substance abuse, and limited proficiency in English, said Ms. Fagnoni.

“To be successful in moving hard-to-employ TANF recipients into the workforce…states will need to provide work-preparation activities tailored to their needs,” Ms. Fagnoni testified. Citing a series of studies, she estimated that 20 to 40 percent of current TANF recipients have health problems or disabilities, 30 to 45 percent lack a high school diploma, 10 to 30 percent are victims of domestic violence, 20 to 30 percent have few job skills, 3 to 12 percent are substance abusers, 7 to 13 percent have little proficiency in English, and 44 to 64 percent have a combination of these factors.

In addition to helping prepare currently unemployed welfare recipients for the workplace, reform efforts should support those who have made the transition from welfare to work, Ms. Fagnoni said. “Many former welfare recipients are employed in low-wage jobs and are at risk of returning to welfare,” she said, adding: “Some states and localities already have undertaken efforts to help…upgrade their job skills.”

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