By Caroline Polk
Tuesday, October 23, 2001
The first bill out of the chute in Congress designed to change the federal welfare law expiring next year would focus on reducing poverty, not the number of families receiving assistance, in part by increasing funds for child care and training.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii has introduced a bill that would shift the focus of current welfare law from reducing the caseload to reducing poverty. It calls for minimum benefits and expanded child care; it broadens the definition of work, lifts time limits on training and encourages education that helps single parents find long-term employment.
The Mink bill addresses provisions of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, as the overhaul to federal welfare laws is known. It lifts some of the harshest provisions of the 1996 law, such as "full-family" sanctions, by which even children are deprived of benefits if parents fail to comply with some aspect of a program. The Mink bill would also mandate services for those who cannot work because of mental illness, physical disability and domestic violence.
The bill, introduced by the Hawaii Democrat on Oct. 12, is the first of several proposals that are expected to reauthorize and refine aspects of the 1996 welfare overhaul, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
Mink said that she introduced the proposed reforms early in order to "raise awareness of the issues that have accumulated" since welfare overhaul went into effect in 1996.
Under the proposed legislation, states must guarantee child care to welfare recipients who are working and who have incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty guideline, currently $14,630 for a mother and two children.
She noted that numerous studies too often "emphasized the fact that welfare rolls declined and made that a tribute to the effectiveness of welfare reform. That is not the way to measure success or failure."
President Clinton's campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it" was often understood to mean that welfare recipients would be moved into paying employment. Recipients face a variety of work and other requirements, which vary by state, and all are subject to a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. Heads of households who do not comply with program requirements are penalized with reductions in benefits, often leading to the end of all assistance to the entire family.
Welfare reform is credited by its supporters with moving millions of people off the welfare rolls and into paying jobs. According to data from the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, welfare caseloads decreased by 50 percent between August 1996 and June 2000--a decline of more than 6 million individual recipients and 2 million families. Many of those workers, however, have ended up in low-wage jobs without benefits--they are off welfare, but they remain poor and still need social services. And in a declining economy, many of those low-paying jobs are disappearing.
Mink's legislation is intended to improve the outlook for current recipients.
Like the original legislation, the Mink bill includes a five-year time limit and work requirements, but it emphasizes poverty reduction. Among other provisions, it authorizes increased funding for child care and other work supports; promotes education and training; and mandates access to services for single parents who deal with barriers to work such as mental illness, physical disability and domestic violence.
The bill also removes the 12-month time limit for work training and expands the definition of work to include a variety of educational options, including literacy skills, English as a second language, preparation for high school equivalency exams and higher education. Moreover, the Mink bill helps eliminate the wide disparity in benefits among states by requiring a minimum benefit level.
Often, women who are sanctioned for failing to comply with welfare regulations face major barriers, such as domestic violence or physical disabilities, which limit their ability to comply with the rules. Reducing their benefits sets up a catch-22 situation, in which the very benefits that could help them overcome the barriers are taken away.
The Mink bill eliminates those situations by requiring that states screen recipients for major barriers to compliance before sanctioning them. If a state caseworker finds that domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, or physical disability impede a recipient from meeting program requirements, the state must offer treatment, which would count toward the work requirement. Moreover, the bill establishes a new system of bonuses to reward states that do the best job of training caseworkers to screen recipients for those barriers.
Mink, who is the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness of the House's Education and the Workforce Committee, said that she takes an interest in welfare law because she feels a legislative obligation to "step into the void" and "speak for people who are directly affected by legislation, who have virtually no voice in Congress."
Advocates for the poor seem pleased with the Mink bill.
Liz Accles, national campaign coordinator of the Welfare Made a Difference National Campaign, which promotes a more supportive welfare system and educates the public about the consequences of punitive welfare policies, said that the Mink bill is an improvement over current law.
She said the proposed legislation "provides remedies for some of welfare reform's harshest measures," such as the full-family sanction, which terminates benefits for children as well as parents.
Barbara Gault, director of research for the Institute for Women's Policy Research, said that the bill "covers areas that have been neglected in the welfare reform law and would address a range of problems." She said the Mink bill "is fair and true to the most admirable intentions that welfare reform is trying to express" but improves on the original legislation by "focusing on poverty reduction and not caseload decline."
The Institute for Women's Policy Research supports many of the reforms in the proposed legislation. It recently released a study, commissioned by NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, showing that women on welfare tend to be channeled into low-paying jobs traditionally held by women, such as customer service and clerical work. (Women's Enews is a project of NOW Legal Defense.)
Although effective job training in nontraditional fields for women, such as the trades and computer programming, could significantly increase the wages of women leaving welfare, the current law limits the amount of training that can be counted as work to one year, with some states permitting less time. By expanding the definition of work and removing the time limit for training, the Mink bill allows impoverished single parents to obtain the training they need to move into high-wage jobs. Gault also noted that the relationship between education and increased earnings is well established.
Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy at the Family Violence Prevention Fund, an education and advocacy organization, was especially pleased with the Mink bill's provisions for helping women who are dealing with domestic violence. According to Stewart, half to three-fourths of all women on welfare have experienced violence or sexual assault; "even some of the advocates are surprised at the high levels of child abuse," she noted.
Stewart added that the bill represents a positive step forward because it "starts to link domestic violence, mental health, substance abuse and disability. ... Women don't experience these as discrete problems, and they all are linked to the ability to stay in the work force." She is optimistic about many of the bill's provisions making it into the final reauthorization legislation: "States in many ways get it--they have to pay for the consequences when women can't get out of poverty."
However, Sheila Zedlewski, director of the Urban Institute's Income and Benefits Policy Center, said that the proposed legislation would significantly change the current system's structure because it "would reduce state flexibility by placing more mandates on the states." In her view, some of the bill's provisions, such as the minimum benefit level, are "nonstarters" because they would be extremely expensive and eliminate the flexibility that states want.
Zedlewski also expressed concern that the bill does away with provisions that many people see as helping reduce teen pregnancy and births to unmarried mothers, such as the "illegitimacy bonus," which rewards states for reductions in births to single parents, and "family caps," which eliminate increased benefits to families in which the head of household has an additional child. Although the research community has not reached consensus on those provisions' effectiveness, Zedlewski felt that a bill without disincentives for teen and births to single parents would "send the wrong message."
At the same time, Zedlewski emphasized that "expanding the work definition, along with treatment for women with disabilities and other barriers to work, is an important piece of the legislation." She added, "I like the recognition that barriers are a big problem among this population--we need strong programs serving people with mental health and other disabilities." She worries that in this time of shrinking block grants and economic difficulty, the few states that already have those programs will be forced to cut them in order to provide cash assistance to increased caseloads.
Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) is expected to introduce a companion bill to Mink's later this year. Welfare reform must be reauthorized by October 2002 because the old bill expires.
Caroline Polk is a free-lance writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.
Welfare Made a Difference Campaign:
Institute for Women's Policy Research:
Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii:
Family Violence Prevention Fund:
Assessing the New Federalism Project:
Rep. Mink's bill: H.R. 3113:
(Search for "h.r.3113")
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