Welfare Reauthorization Delays Leave Recipients in Limbo

As the Senate battles over what changes to make before reauthorizing the 1996 welfare reform bill (search), Congress continues to extend the existing provisions that were in effect on Sept. 30, 2002, when the bill was originally set to end.

The House on Tuesday extended the welfare reform act for the seventh time. The unanimous House action followed a Senate vote last week to extend the welfare reform act until June 30. The act would have expired Wednesday without the extension.

But while Congress wrangles over a new bill, some welfare recipients say delays are starting to hit them hard.

"The money isn't enough," said Arnetta Carter-Pinkney, 37, a Baltimore, Md. mother of two who gets $477 a month through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (search) program.

Carter-Pinkney, who has been on welfare since she lost her job in 2000, said she is getting squeezed between the rising cost of living, including day care and transportation costs, and benefits that have only increased $5 a month since September 2002. That has made it hard to get a new education and fulfill federal TANF requirements while the program is in limbo, she said.

The 1996 welfare reform bill required that recipients spend at least 30 hours a week in welfare-to-work programs in exchange for their benefits check.

It has worked well at reducing welfare rolls in the nation, but proposals to renew the law could enforce even tougher requirements: The House wants recipients to spend 40 hours a week in welfare-to-work programs, while the Senate has proposed a sliding scale based on a family's situation.

There are benefits to the reauthorization plans as well, however. Both chambers would increase funding for child care for parents on welfare, but the Senate is pushing for more money than the House.

Both the House and Senate would require that at least 70 percent of each state's welfare recipients meet the new welfare-to-work hours -- whatever they may be -- by 2008.

That is an increase over the current compliance rate of 50 percent -- a rate some states still have yet to meet.

But the state has not been penalized for failing to meet TANF guidelines, because it has been so successful at reducing its welfare rolls. The reduction earned the state a credit from the federal government.

Kevin McGuire, executive director of the Maryland Department of Human Resources' Family Investment Administration, said the numbers are not as bad as they appear. People are participating, he said, but under current law their welfare-to-work hours do not count if they miss even a single hour of their commitment.

"It's setting you up to fail," said Carter-Pinkney, who struggled to find care for her 12- and 2-year-old daughters.

But Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation (search), defended the 1996 reforms as "extremely successful," despite concerns by some.

"[Welfare] used to be a program that sent checks to families. The core idea of the 1996 reform was that welfare wouldn't be a one-way hand out," Rector said. "That has been extremely successful."

Even Carter-Pinkney agreed with that.

"When you work for something you appreciate it. When it's given you don't," she said. "People get complacent."

But she said she would like people to put themselves in her shoes for a moment.

"It only takes you losing your job to be in the Social Security office," she said.