WASHINGTON – President Bush wants to put welfare recipients to work, more than they do now, as part of a series of changes to the welfare system that he is proposing. On Tuesday, the president also suggested putting more money into education and job training and encouraging more people to get married.
The changes will usher in the next phase of welfare reform six years after Congress and President Clinton enacted the 1996 welfare reform law that ended welfare "as we know it."
"Critics initially called these changes brutal and mean spirited. Yet the results of reform have proven them wrong. Many lives have been dramatically improved. Since 1996, welfare case loads dropped by more than half. Today, 5.4 million fewer people live in poverty than in 1996, including 2.6 million fewer children. Child poverty for African-American children is at its lowest level ever," Bush told a crowd at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Washington.
"We are encouraged by the initial results of welfare reform, but we're not content," he said.
The '96 welfare reform act changed the program into a block grant that states administer. Bush aims to give states more flexibility to coordinate benefits like income supplements, childcare and food stamps.
In exchange for the increased authority and cash to go with it, the president wants to give the governors some new responsibilities, like raising the percentage of welfare recipients with jobs. Right now about 30 percent of the nation's welfare recipients work an average of 10 to 15 hours a week. Bush wants to make it a requirement that 70 percent of a state's welfare recipients work 25 or more hours a week for the state to qualify for its block grant money.
"Because of a quirk in the 1996 law, states, on average, must require work of only 5 percent of the adults receiving welfare. This is certainly not what Congress had in mind when it wrote the reforms in 1996, so I'm recommending that the law be changed, and every state be required, within five years, to have 70 percent of the welfare recipients working, so that more Americans know the independence and the dignity of work," he said.
One of Bush's options, previously discouraged, would allow states to put welfare recipients in education and job training programs for up to 16 hours per week, to bring recipients up to a 40 hour work week. Prior to the 1996 law, the government failed in helping get people off the roles because many recipients skipped out of education and training classes, though they still received welfare payments.
The president, however, is facing some financial obstacles that will be hard to overcome. Currently, the nation's governors are spending 25 percent of their welfare money on child care right now, and are expected to double the number of mostly single mothers who find jobs. That means much higher childcare expenses without additional money.
At the same time, members of Congress want to reduce federal welfare aid to states based on the fact that welfare rolls have been cut in half. And advocates for welfare recipients say it's unfair for Bush to require the least employable people to find work, when the economy is in recession.
"The Bush welfare reauthorization proposal runs counter to everything we have learned in the past five years about what helps poor families survive," said Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. "The plan calls for a massive increase in the number of people required to work, an unrealistic proposal in the best of economic times, but truly bizarre in the middle of a recession. It represents a huge step backwards."
But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended tough work requirements, even in the middle of a recession.
"The president is confident that one of the reasons welfare reform works is that because in good times (and) in bad times, it tells people that the aid they get under welfare will only be temporary, and that people can find work, they should be able to find work and the government has programs set up to help them find work," he said Tuesday.
Despite the financial questions, Bush also wants to direct up to $200 million in federal funds, with another $100 million from an idle state welfare fund meant to reduce out-of-wedlock births, to encourage recipients to get married. The programs would include premarital counseling and education on marriage skills.
Advocates of the welfare reform program already attribute an increase in two-parent households between 1995 and 2000 to the welfare overhaul.
"All the evidence we have tells us there's a very strong link between the weakening of marriage and the growing number of children in poverty. Society has a stake in stable marriages," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values.
The president has rejected a push by Democrats and welfare rights groups to restore food stamp benefits to immigrants who came to the United States legally after the 1996 law was signed. Bush said he would keep the five-year ban on food stamps in place to keep immigrants from becoming "welfare dependent."
Bush also praised the directors at St. Luke's for their programs to steer kids away from crime and help people with drug habits heal.
The idea of using more religious groups to help with the country's social problems is a part of his armies of compassion. Bush took aim at "Great Society" programs he said had conflicted results, especially welfare which he said trapped people in dependency. He said the '96 reforms changed that.
Since the 1996 welfare reform act was signed, the number of people receiving cash assistance has been cut in half, but many attribute the numbers to a strong economy.
The nation's governors say that even in a recession, they haven't seen a spike in welfare rolls. Nevertheless, many governors say they want to relax the five-year cut-off rule, though they are pleased with proposed increases in education and job training.
Fox News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Wendell Goler serves as a senior White House and foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC), joining the network in 1996.