WASHINGTON – President Bush wants to put welfare recipients to work as part of a series of changes to the welfare system that he is proposing.
On Wednesday, the president took his show on the road, speaking to community leaders in North Carolina about his plan to usher in the next phase of welfare reform, an expansion of the 1996 law that ended welfare "as we know it."
"There are 20,000 businesses nationwide that helped 1.1 million people go from welfare to work. It is an essential ingredient of what the future bill ought to look like. We need to make sure that work is an integral part of any welfare reauthorization, that the cornerstone of a good bill understands that when we help somebody find work, and I emphasize the help somebody find work, that leads to more independence, more self-esteem, and more joy and hope," he told a roundtable at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.
The president, who said his comments were based on remarks by former welfare recipients, argued that businesses would benefit if more changes are made to the welfare system.
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. Currently, 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.
On Tuesday, the president also suggested putting more money into education and job training and encouraging more people to get married.
Bush told a crowd at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Washington that he would like to 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 revised plan would make them more employable but also would condition their welfare payments on doing the work.
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.
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.
Children of two-parent families, Bush said Wednesday, are more likely to finish school, more likely to get jobs and less likely to turn to crime. His aides said there's little evidence government can have much success in promoting healthy marriages, but they say states, as laboratories, can try pilot programs
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."
Fox News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and David Shuster and the Associated Press contributed to this report.