By Margy Waller
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
As reported in the Women's eNews series, recent research indicates that the 1996 welfare law is failing many women raising children alone. In response, Waller calls on Congress to act quickly on improvements that have been stalled for two years.
Since President Clinton signed the historic welfare legislation in 1996, we've learned a lot about what works. Family economic security is strengthened with supports like child care and transportation assistance, education and training.
Congress and the Bush administration have been debating legislation to reauthorize the 1996 welfare law for several years. The law officially expired two years ago, and unable to agree on how or whether to make changes, Congress has temporarily extended the law every three months or so since then.
Given the press of other business and the pending national election, it's not clear when Congress will turn back to serious consideration of the welfare law. When it does, decisionmakers should heed the lessons of research on reducing poverty and supporting work, while making certain that welfare continues to be a safety net for families when they need it.
The Bush administration and some members of Congress are focused on investing in new initiatives promoting marriage as a strategy to achieve welfare reform goals.
Unfortunately, our knowledge of the benefits and risks of encouraging marriage for low-income parents is limited.
While there is evidence that marriage increases household income, it may not be easy or even a good idea to encourage marriage for many single parents. The problem is figuring out which families might benefit from proposed services, like counseling and education.
Many unmarried parents are at risk of factors known to contribute to marital disruption or conflict, such as domestic violence, unemployment or mental health problems. If we encourage marriage for such couples before addressing these issues, we may put families at greater risk of experiencing marital conflict and divorce or separation with all of their negative consequences.
Given the limited knowledge about how to support healthy marriages, Congress should approach public investment with care, providing a relatively small appropriation dedicated to research purposes.
Also on the current administration's agenda for welfare changes is a proposal to add work hours for parents and increase state work rates. At the same time, President Bush has refused to increase the current--steadily eroding and woefully inadequate--level of child-care funding.
The administration's proposals will almost certainly force states to reduce investment in proven and promising family supports, like child care, transportation, and child support collection.
A review of the recent welfare and poverty reports, and the research conclusions about improving the well-being of families, reducing poverty, and supporting work, shows that the administration's proposals have no basis in evidence and are unlikely to reverse the trend lines for poor families.
In the current budget environment of limited resources, the next steps in improving welfare laws require a conservative approach: investment only in proven and promising work supports and safety-net services. Mothers and others on welfare have no interest in experimenting with family security. Just like everyone else.
Margy Waller is a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution and former senior advisor for Welfare and Working Families to President Clinton.
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