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Official Defends Welfare Plan's Family Themes

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Washington

Mary Jo Bane delivers rapid-fire answers to questions on President Clinton's welfare-reform plan with the composure of a scholar who not only has been quizzed on the same topic repeatedly, but who helped write the test.

Indeed, the assistant secretary, who heads the Health and Human Services Department's administration for children and families, grows slightly impatient when responding to some critics' concerns that the plan is too hard on families.

To Ms. Bane, the underlying theme of the plan is self-evident: Work is better for families and children than welfare.

"It challenges us to bring all of our systems together to make sure families are helped to be economically strong" so they can raise healthy and productive children, she said in a recent interview.

Ms. Bane is a former Harvard professor who specialized in poverty issues; she has also served as New York State's commissioner of social services. Now the Clinton Administration official who oversees most family-welfare programs, she co-chaired the task force that helped craft the reform proposal that President Clinton unveiled in June. (See Education Week, June 22, 1994.)

Congressional panels held several hearings on welfare reform this summer, and more than 20 welfare bills have been introduced. But welfare has taken a back seat to health-care reform, and it is unclear how much headway Congress can make this year.

Nevertheless, it remains a popular issue on Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers are still clamoring to address the issue before the fall elections, and it is virtually certain to reappear on the agenda.

While some liberals think the two-year time limit on benefits proposed by Mr. Clinton is too harsh, some conservatives would go so far as to virtually eliminate welfare, at least for unwed teenage mothers.

However, though her optimism has been tempered by rancorous debates on the crime bill and health care, Ms. Bane believes a consensus is within reach.

Critics Span the Spectrum

"I have actually been struck in conversations on [Capitol] Hill about how much common ground there is," Ms. Bane said. "The highly partisan nature of all the debates in Congress at the moment is obscuring the fact of how much agreement there is."

The Clinton plan would impose the two-year time limit on recipients who do not fall into specific exempted groups, phasing in those born after 1971 first. Those who could not find jobs would enter a subsidized work program.

The plan also calls for expanded training and child-care programs, tougher child-support enforcement, and teenage-pregnancy prevention grants to schools.

Child-welfare groups have supported those efforts, but raised several concerns about the plan's effects on children and youths.

Some argue that the bill falls short of meeting parents' need for child care and could force working poor families back on welfare to get limited child-care aid. Ms. Bane noted that besides increasing funding for education, training, and work slots by $2.7 billion, the plan proposes to boost aid for families at risk of going on welfare by $1.5 billion over five years.

That plan and an increase in the Child Care and Development Block Grant proposed in the President's fiscal 1995 budget would nearly double federal child-care aid for the working poor, Ms. Bane said.

Child-Care Standards

The plan, she added, would also help to raise the quality of care by requiring programs for welfare clients to adopt the same health and safety standards as those funded by the block grant and allowing states to spend 10 percent of their funds to boost program quality.

"Some will say we are going too far," she noted, citing the argument that too much regulation makes it harder for parents to choose informal care settings.

The plan also lowers the exemption from work requirements from three years to one year after the birth of the recipient's first child.

While some conservatives say that policy is still too lax, child advocates fear it would strain an already weak supply of care for children in the vulnerable birth-to-3 age span.

Ms. Bane noted that a new birth-to-3 program being created under Head Start, while small, will help offer "leadership" in that area. Phasing the welfare plan in beginning with the youngest clients, she added, will allow "time to build the infrastructure we need."

But some studies have suggested that the youngest welfare recipients, most often single mothers, may be the most difficult to serve and least likely to benefit from time limits and work requirements. (See Education Week, July 13, 1994.)

Ms. Bane counters that they will be even harder to reach in 15 years and that data on which age group is hardest to serve offer at best a "mixed picture."

"We didn't claim that this is the easiest group to serve," she said, "but it is the most important to send a clear message to young people."

Work or Education?

The bill would call for expanded funding for education and training under the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training program and offer some extensions to the time limit for educational pursuits. But youth advocates fear its emphasis on quick job entry could limit access to longer-term education.

While research on work- versus education-oriented programs is not clearcut, Ms. Bane is adamant that "evidence and experience" support a strong work focus.

"What JOBS lacked was a sense of urgency--the time limit says this is serious, we've got to do it quickly," she explained.

A proposed national campaign to combat teenage pregnancy, meanwhile, would offer prevention grants to 1,000 schools and start a curriculum clearinghouse. But Ms. Bane conceded that no one approach has been proved effective.

"This is the area where the gap between the importance of the problem and sure knowledge on how to solve it is the greatest," she said.

Another largely untested strategy that has drawn fire from children's groups is the "family cap," which would let states limit additional benefits for women who have more children while on welfare.

Clinton officials felt the cap was "an appropriate area for state flexibility," Ms. Bane said, and states that favor it want "to send the same signals as the working world sends" to families considering having more children.

She cited a "safety net" feature that would allow women in states that adopt a cap to use either work earnings or child-support payments to make up the loss.

She also stressed that the plan includes safeguards to insure that minor mothers required to live with parents or other adults do not end up back in abusive homes, a prime concern of child-welfare groups.

There is always the threat that the bill's support services could be weakened by Congress, Ms. Bane acknowledged.

"But I do think this is a coherent proposal," she said.

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