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Welfare Hearing Focuses on Strengthening Families

Continuing the dialogue on the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law (P.L. 104-193), the Senate Finance Committee held a May 16 hearing focused on building stronger families. Much of the discussion at the hearing centered on the pros and the cons of the marriage promotion proposals included in the President’s welfare reform plan.

Noting that the President has proposed grants to promote marriage, Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) stated, “To me, marriage is a personal and private choice, and it’s not something the government should interfere with.” He added, “There are a lot of perspectives, and we will hear some difference of opinion today.”

In his opening remarks, Ranking Member Charles Grassley (R-IA) responded: “From my experience as a parent, I would agree with President Bush that single moms have the toughest job in the world, especially young, unwed teenage mothers.” He continued, “If the government can help young mothers afford food, transportation, and child care, I see no reason why the government shouldn’t reach out and help couples who are struggling to stay together.”

The first panel of witnesses included several Senators who shared their views and presented various legislative proposals on welfare reform. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) talked about legislation (S. 2117) that he introduced with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) that would expand child care assistance for needy families. The Access to High Quality Child Care Act “would strengthen the coordination between the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and child care offices,” he said. “We encourage states to find ways to make the process of obtaining and retaining child care assistance more in sync with the needs of low-wage workers,” he added.

Speaking in favor of the President’s marriage proposals, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) argued, “I don’t see one statistic that shows that marriage is a negative for children.” There should be “some incentives for states to come up with innovative proposals to develop strong and stable marriages,” he said, adding that the President’s proposal provides “$300 million in grants to see what would work.”

Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Tom Carper (D-DE) highlighted the provisions in their welfare bill, the Work and Family Act. The legislation (S. 2524) would increase the state work participation requirements to 70 percent, would replace the caseload reduction credit with an employment credit, and would ask welfare recipients to work a full 40-hour week, said Sen. Bayh. The Work and Family Act also would include $8 billion for child care and incentive credits to states for moving people into higher paying jobs. “We build on four critical factors: a job; a way to get to that job; adequate child care; and health care,” explained Sen. Carper.

On the second panel, Dr. Wade Horn of the Department of Health and Human Services testified on behalf of the President’s welfare proposals. He described a number of misconceptions about the promoting marriage plan. “First, promoting healthy marriage is not about forcing anyone to get married. Choosing to marry is a private decision,” he emphasized. “Second, promoting healthy marriages cannot, intentionally or otherwise, result in policies that force people to enter into, or remain in, abusive relationships,” he continued. “Finally,…healthy marriage does not mean withdrawing supports and services from single-parent families,” he said.

Dr. Horn outlined “what supporting healthy marriage is about” in the President’s plan, explaining that first, “we would establish improving the well-being of children as the overarching purpose of TANF and underscore that the fourth goal of TANF is to encourage the formation of healthy, two-parent, married families and responsible fatherhood.”

Making his second point, he said: “We would seek to remove disincentives to marriage under welfare reform that punish rather than support low-income couples who choose to marry.” As an example, he cited provisions in the current welfare law (P.L. 104-193) that require states to achieve a 90 percent participation rate for two-parent married families on welfare, whereas the participation rate for single-parent families is 50 percent. “We would eliminate the separate two-parent family work participation rate,” he said.

Additionally, he told the committee that resources should be provided to support activities that promote marriage and family formation efforts. The Administration’s proposal would provide funding for states to develop innovative measures to support and promote healthy marriages. “First, we would target the $100 million from the proposed elimination of the Illegitimacy Reduction Bonus (in current law, it is awarded to states with the highest reduction in out-of-wedlock pregnancies) for broad research, evaluation, demonstration and technical assistance, focused primarily on healthy marriage and family formation activities,” he explained. Second, the $100 million “from the current-law High Performance Bonus would be redirected to establish a competitive matching grant program for states to develop innovative programs that promote healthy marriages and reduce out-of-wedlock births,” he concluded.

The committee also heard testimony from various organizations that provide assistance for welfare recipients and conduct research on welfare reform. “Approximately 4 in 10 teenage girls get pregnant at least once before age 20,” said Isabel Sawhill of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “Teen pregnancy and childbearing costs the taxpayers a minimum of $7 billion a year, yet we are investing very little to prevent it,” she added.

Ms. Sawhill urged the committee to invest more resources into preventing teen pregnancies. “We should be spending at least $100 million to help save some of the $7 billion that teen child-bearing costs the nation each year,” she said. Teen pregnancy prevention should be mentioned “in key parts of the law such as purposes, grants related to family formation and healthy marriage and state plans,” she recommended, and added that, “unless we can prevent early child-bearing, efforts to encourage marriage are unlikely to achieve their ultimate objective of producing stable families.”

According to Kate Kahan of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, domestic violence is an important issue in addressing the needs of welfare recipients. As a victim of domestic violence, she shared her story with the committee. She first applied for welfare assistance when she was six months pregnant with her son, but could not qualify because “I had $7 too much in my bank account.” She married the father of her child, “but even married with two incomes we were poor,” she said. It took a year for her to move out of a violent home, after “being belittled, manipulated, harassed, physically assaulted and verbally abused.”

Ms. Kahan told the committee that “60 percent of women on welfare have experienced domestic violence,” and that “marriage promotion will not help these women in crisis leave.” She called marriage promotion “another barrier to leaving and will not serve the poverty they face.” She urged the committee, “It is time to move beyond oversimplified, band aid approaches to welfare reform like marriage promoting and increased work hours for families in need and start focusing on family strengthening by ensuring reasonable work participation goals, rather than diverting resources to keep families busy.” She also recommended support for child care, housing, Medicaid, and protection from domestic violence.

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