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States Worry About Bush Welfare Rules

By: ROBIN TONER, The New York Times ,April 30, 2002, Tuesday

In Minnesota, local officials are already worrying about how they will meet the Bush administration's proposal for strict new work requirements for people on welfare.

Welfare workers in St. Paul wonder what it will mean to the Hmong refugees who speak no English, who are now placed in several months of language training before they are urged into the workplace. Counselors in Anoka County, outside Minneapolis, wonder what it will mean to mothers in suburban or rural areas, with complicated child care and transportation needs. Jerry Vitzthum, director of Anoka's Job Training Center, wonders how his caseworkers will even piece together the required 40 hours of work and other activity for 70 percent of their clients, given the lackluster job market. Not to mention all the child care it will demand, and the intricate arrangements for transportation in a county where public transportation is spotty. He also wonders how clients themselves will manage.

"It's hard enough for them to juggle family and work, or family and training -- to juggle three things, plus transportation," he said. "It assumes that these people have got it all together." And, he added, many obviously do not.

There is, in fact, considerable -- and bipartisan -- concern among the states over the administration's welfare proposals. In the state capital of St. Paul, officials fume that the Bush proposal feels like a betrayal -- a rollback of the fundamental philosophy behind the landmark 1996 welfare law, which gave states immense flexibility to design and run their welfare programs.

Under that law, states have had resounding success in reducing welfare caseloads and poverty. "The question is, why tinker with that?" asked Michael O'Keefe, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

It is a question raised by many state officials these days. A survey by the National Governors' Association found that welfare officials in 35 states said they would be forced to make "fundamental changes" to their programs under the Bush plan, regardless of how successful those programs have been. The National Conference of State Legislatures warned that the Bush work requirements would "stretch states' resources too thin" and force states to cut back on existing programs intended to help people find and keep work.

The debate over the Bush plan has turned conventional politics on its head, with Republicans accused of advocating a centralized, Washington-knows-best approach to social welfare policy -- the very philosophy they have campaigned against since the days of Ronald Reagan.

The Republican Governors Association has rallied around the administration's plan. Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, says of his critics, "I wish they'd read the bill, because there's a lot of flexibility built in." He noted that the heightened work requirements would be phased in over five years, that the economy was getting stronger and that the new law would give states a lot of leeway -- and new authority to experiment -- in how to reach the new goals.

The Bush plan, with some revisions, is expected to pass the House next month on a party-line vote and face uncertain prospects in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Much of the 1996 welfare law expires this year and needs to be rewritten and renewed.

Among state and local governments, much of the concern appears to center on the proposed work requirements. Under the Bush proposal, by the year 2007, 70 percent of welfare recipients will be expected to engage in a 40-hour week, including 24 hours on a job, and 16 hours of education or other activities. Currently, only about 30 percent of welfare recipients are working in a typical state, and a typical week for those recipients is 20 hours of work, 10 hours of training.

Others might be in drug treatment, language training or other basic education, state officials say. For example, in St. Paul, Jan Mueller, who oversees the welfare program for Lifetrack Resources, has a significant refugee population in her caseload, particularly Hmong and Somalians. Typically, they are enrolled in "functional work English" classes for 20 hours a week. Adding 24 hours of work to that total "is a very heavy burden for people who are already struggling," she said.

Republicans argue that it is simply time to raise the bar on the states. While welfare caseloads have dropped by more than half since 1996, they say, states need to do more to ensure that the people still on welfare are fully engaged in some kind of work activity.

But state officials note that these new work requirements come in a much tougher economic climate. Moreover, they say, many of the easy cases have already left the rolls, leaving a disproportionate number of clients who are harder to place in jobs, because of issues like mental health problems or a lack of English.

"We're dealing with a lot of people now who have been on assistance for a significant period of time," said Nicole Swanson, who oversees welfare programs in Anoka County. "They have low I.Q.'s and learning disabilities and a lot of family issues -- single parents dealing with two or three kids, one is in foster care, one is in the probation system, the mother's trying to go to work and deal with day care."

For all these reasons, some state officials say the only way to meet the new requirements is by creating new "work experience" or workfare programs, in which recipients are essentially required to work off their grants. Critics deride such programs as "make work" that does little to move poor people into long-term employment.

But Jason Turner, who was New York City's welfare commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, said that work was an essential component for clients. "Sitting in a classroom, day after day, week after week, is just not effective in helping you to get up and get a job," Mr. Turner said. Going to a workplace "helps change the self-perception of the individual to someone with a work identity," he said.

A 40-hour week, officials say, would also mean major new expenses for child care. The California Legislative Analyst's Office reported last week that the Bush plan would cost that state an additional $2.8 billion over the next five years, largely because of child care.

Some state officials said they feared that the new requirements would also drain time and money away from the language, training and treatment programs many states now offer the poor -- activities that would be permitted under the Bush plan but, by themselves, would not satisfy the work requirement. Robin Arnold-Williams, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services and a leader in the American Public Human Services Association, cited the example of mothers who abuse methamphetamine.

"That mom may, for the first three months, typically need full-time residential care. But you know, she's not ready to go to work 24 hours a week right after that. Otherwise, we're setting her up to fail."

In Minnesota, state officials say they pride themselves on not just cutting the welfare rolls, but helping people move out of poverty -- developing their skills, stabilizing their families and supplementing their income even after they take private-sector jobs. The program has, in fact, been widely praised. But, Mr. O'Keefe says, under the Bush plan: "We would not be able to do what we're doing now. We would not get the results we're getting now."

Those pleas for state flexibility and the freedom to experiment are familiar to Secretary Thompson, who as governor of Wisconsin was a leading advocate for state flexibility when the 1996 law was being written. In an interview, Mr. Thompson suggested it was all part of the legislative dance. "If I was a governor, I'd be doing the same thing," he said.