GOP Welfare Plan Could Leave States Stranded, Democrats Say
Administration officials and other Democrats warned Friday that the House GOP plan for reforming welfare would leave states unprepared to aid poor families in their greatest need--when regional catastrophes hit or recession occurs.
The cautionary comments came during the first hearing on welfare in the human resources subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, which is trying to move quickly to draft a major overhaul of the welfare system.
House Republicans propose handing most control over the welfare system to states by giving them block grants with few federal requirements. Welfare programs such as food stamps and Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the main cash benefit for poor families, no longer would enjoy entitlement status. The federal government currently bases its welfare spending on the assumption that anyone who is eligible for welfare is entitled to receive it.
Under the proposal, the federal government would make fixed grants to states and would not adjust the size of those appropriations as welfare rolls in each state rose or fell. Opponents argued that such an approach would mean that, in tough economic times, states could not keep up with needs.
During recessions states are particularly ill-equipped to extend assistance to the poor because their revenue shrinks.
“A national welfare program must enable states to deliver the help needed by families who fall on hard times and play by the rules,” said Mary Jo Bane, an assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. “The system should not leave the states with the full responsibility for addressing increased demands on their welfare system in times of economic or demographic change.”
Robert Greenstein, executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cautioned that states potentially would have to eliminate the training programs that governors praise for helping welfare recipients prepare for jobs so they can be independent.
In an analysis of what would have happened to funding of the AFDC program if Congress had adopted a similar block-grant proposal in 1988, the department found that California would have received $1 billion, or 33%, less than it did in 1993. Total federal expenditures on the program would have been $3.6 billion, or 26% less than they were in 1993.
Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, a Democrat, also urged the panel to consider that the reform could leave states “without any kind of life preserver” to throw to families that want to work but cannot because of bleak economic conditions.
House Republicans, however, argued that ending the entitlement status is essential to keeping expenses under control.
Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, said there is no guarantee that AFDC and food stamps will not fall under the budget ax even if they remain an entitlement. In an interview after his testimony, Engler suggested that states could save money in times of prosperity for use in times of recession or other difficulties.
Engler and congressional Republicans added that, if states are controlling their own welfare programs, they can devise ways to do so within a fixed budget.
But Democrats argued that the country is morally obliged to care for its disadvantaged, and cautioned that in some poor states or states with less generous public officials, poor people could end up with no place to turn for help.
“There’s a natural responsibility for any civilization to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves,” Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) said.