House Panel Approves Welfare-Reform Bill Creating Block Grants
A House subcommittee approved a Republican welfare-reform bill last week that would give states most of the responsibility for administering aid programs serving millions of poor children and their families.
The bill also includes a provision that would deny benefits to children of unwed mothers under age 18.
Inching one step closer to fulfilling the G.O.P. "Contract With America," the House Subcommittee on Human Resources approved the measure on an 8-to-5 party-line vote, after altering it to address some concerns raised by Republican governors.
The bill, which is to be merged with other sections of the larger "personal responsibility act," would abolish the 60-year-old federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, as well as several other programs, and replace them with block grants to states--a system Republican governors strongly favor.
The Republican lawmakers also guaranteed the governors increased flexibility in administering welfare programs at the state level. The amended bill would allow states to transfer up to 30 percent of their funds between the various block grants in the bill.
"This removes the one-size-fits-all style of governing that has plagued the system for years," said LeAnne Redick, an adviser to Governor John Engler of Michigan, the leader of the Republican governors' welfare-reform effort.
In addition to the A.F.D.C. block grant, the subcommittee last week voted 9 to 4 to create a child-protection block grant, which would allow states to govern programs that aim to protect abused and neglected children.
The bill would authorize approximately $4 billion in fiscal 1996, a funding ceiling that would increase each year for five years. The money individual states would receive would be determined by the amount of federal child-protection funds they got from 1991 to 1993. According to the Health and Human Services Department, the bill would save $5.5 billion over five years compared with current programs.
To guard against misuse of funds on the state and local levels, the bill would establish state-level citizens' review panels that would be charged with investigating reports of neglect and abuse.
But House Democrats warned that those protections might not be sufficient.
"Democrats fear that if there are no standards, you are just saying, 'Take the money and do what you want,' and the states don't always do a good job," said an aide to Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., a member of the Ways and Means Committee. "If [states] run a second-rate program, we can't do anything about that."
Block-grant opponents note that six states are under court orders because their child-protection programs were deemed inadequate, and 20 more states have reached settlements or have been ordered by a court in the past to fix problems in their systems.
In a dramatic change, the welfare bill also seeks to overhaul the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides over $24 billion a year in federal benefits to disabled and elderly people with low incomes.
Responding to reports that some parents have coached their children to exhibit behavioral problems in order to qualify for aid, the subcommittee approved a provision, on another party-line vote, that would toughen eligibility requirements for poor, disabled children and bar S.S.I. payments to alcohol and drug abusers.
Disabled children now receiving cash benefits for medical services would continue to receive them under the plan. But it would prevent new applicants with disabilities from receiving cash benefits unless they would be institutionalized if their parents were not caring for them.
Democratic opponents say the provision would threaten 6 percent of the nearly 700,000 children who currently receive S.S.I. aid. But Republicans argue that the change is needed to fix a system that is plagued with abuse.
"The current system is destroying lives," a Republican aide to the Ways and Means Committee said last week. "It has perpetuated a whole segment of poverty where generation upon generation of families rely on welfare to live."
While Republicans were moving their bill on the fast track, Democratic leaders said they would try to reshape it into something that could "truly reform" what they agree is an ailing welfare system. They favor retaining A.F.D.C. as a federal entitlement program, but adding work requirements and other reforms aimed at moving recipients off welfare.
The House minority leader, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., this month decried the Republican plan as "dangerous" and irresponsible. "To Republicans, welfare reform is just passing the buck," he said. "It's kicking people off the welfare rolls and leaving innocent children out on the street."
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., held a news conference last week at which children from around the country read letters describing how the Republican plan could harm children.
The welfare bill now moves to the full House Ways and Means committee, which is expected to vote on the measure this week. The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee also plans to take up the child-care and child-nutrition provisions of the "personal responsibility act" this week.