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Welfare reform plus

Politics | States win a new day to reduce caseloads, help poor families

Issue: "Nuke nightmare," Feb. 25, 2006

There's a firecracker named B.J. Walker living in Georgia and her philosophy is this: "Welfare isn't good enough for any child."

As it happens, the Bush administration shares that philosophy. On Feb. 8, following years of congressional stalling, President Bush signed legislation reauthorizing welfare reform. The reauthorization-piggybacked onto the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005-essentially hits the reset button on the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 and requires state agencies to begin again in earnest helping welfare recipients achieve self-sufficiency.

When Mrs. Walker moved from a job spearheading welfare reform in Illinois to become Georgia's Commissioner of Human Resources in 2004, she imported a new values system: Working families are always better off than non-working families, and the job of welfare caseworkers is "not to get benefits out the door, but to help put families to work."

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Like others nationally, Georgia's caseworkers had helped lots of folks find work in the years following 1996. The welfare-reform act replaced an endless, no-strings government dole with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a program that required at least 50 percent of welfare recipients to work or participate weekly in job-preparation activities. But as the program propelled people into self-sufficiency-nationwide, welfare caseloads dropped by 60 percent-a "caseload reduction credit" enabled agencies administering TANF to require fewer welfare recipients to work.

Many caseworkers settled back into an old pattern. "We had four years where the states drifted back into the role of check writers," said Heritage Foundation senior research analyst Robert Rector, who wrote the work-requirement provisions in the 1996 act. "They had lost to a considerable degree the ethos of being in the business of reducing dependency."

Not so with B.J. Walker. When she arrived in Georgia, the work-participation rate hovered at about 25 percent-meaning that only one in four welfare recipients even so much as looked for work in 2004. Two years later nearly two-thirds are working or preparing to work, and 13 of Georgia's 159 counties have reduced their welfare caseloads to zero.

Georgia caseworkers succeeded by realizing "that our work is to do what we know is better for families, not to meet some federal goal," Mrs. Walker said.

With the reauthorization, even state agencies not similarly motivated will have to begin putting more people to work. While some states (like Hawaii, Kansas, Ohio, and Massachusetts) achieved high work-participation rates, numbers in others (like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.) fell below 20 percent. The new law recalibrates the caseload reduction credit, meaning that all states not already doing so must ensure by October that at least half of welfare recipients are working, looking for work, or in job training.

Meanwhile, it also offers something new: $150 million dollars to support voluntary programs that help needy couples marry-and stay married. The Administration for Children and Families, a division of Health and Human Services, will provide competitive grants to faith-based and nonsectarian groups that offer premarital and marital enrichment programs.

"Up to this point, the public-service sector has often treated marriage as if it were a dirty word," ACF administrator Wade Horn told WORLD. "Many are confused by a myth that marriage as a social institution has died in low-income communities." Yet research shows that about eight in 10 low-income couples facing an out-of-wedlock birth are in an exclusive romantic relationship, with more than half actively contemplating marriage. "We're trying to determine whether providing greater access to education, where couples can think through their decision and learn the skills necessary to maintain healthy and stable marriages, can help those couples attain for themselves what they say they want," Mr. Horn said.

The importance of intact traditional families to child health, as well as to lower crime and poverty rates, "is now a mainstream position," said Jenny Morse, an economist and author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work. When Congress first enacted welfare reform 10 years ago, "everybody was for getting single moms working, but nobody was ready to get the dads back into the house," she said. "It's now time to take the next step."

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