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Advocates for needy running out of time on welfare bill


A single mother of two in Missouri earning $17,000 a year can’t afford a 50-cent-an-hour pay raise -- the resulting cut in her government-funded daycare assistance would reduce her income.

Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., 48 of their colleagues, as well as the U.S. Catholic Bishops, President Bush, and a host of social welfare lobbyists want the Senate to consider legislation that could curb such incongruities in the U.S. welfare system. But facing a crowded legislative agenda prior to adjournment -- now likely to include debate over war with Iraq -- those who favor resolving differences over the legislation before Congress adjourns next month are running out of time.

It is critical to pass the five-year reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, TANF, program this year, proponents of the measure passed by the Senate Finance Committee argue, because failure to do so would mean starting over again in a budgetary climate even less hospitable to the poor than today. Add political uncertainty to the equation -- Republican control of the Senate is one possible outcome of the upcoming elections -- and lobbyists for more daycare assistance, job training for those leaving the welfare rolls and assistance to legal immigrants have a powerful argument that the current Senate bill is the best possible outcome.

“We’re firmly convinced that the poor need our help right now, not in a year, and not after the elections,” said Mercy Sr. Kathy Thornton, national coordinator of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.

The clock, however, is not the only obstacle. A House-passed version of the legislation that would have to be reconciled with its Senate counterpart includes $700 million less for daycare and has more stringent “work requirements.” Under the Senate bill, states can count participation in college or vocational training as work for up to two years. President Bush has criticized this provision, which proponents argue is vital to moving families out of poverty and not simply off the welfare rolls.

“The education level of parents has a strong influence on a child’s development,” said J. Lawrence Aber, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty. Plus, said Aber, “trying to get 40 hours a week in a labor market that does not have 40 hours of work is a difficult thing.”

In addition, the Senate proposal would allow states to provide assistance to legal immigrants. The House bill has no such provision.

Meanwhile, a low-cost but high-profile provision of the House-passed bill could derail the entire effort. House Republicans pushed for $300 million to fund programs that “promote marriage” because two-parent families are far less likely to live in poverty than single parents. Opponents argue that government should not be in the business of enticing people to marry.

If Congress fails to reauthorize TANF, it is likely to extend the program for a year at current funding levels, observers say.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent.

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002