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Senate Sets Vote On Revised Welfare Measure

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The Senate set the stage last week for passage of a sweeping welfare-reform measure, as a provision that would have denied cash payments to mothers who have additional children while on welfare was struck from the bill and Republican leaders agreed to a package of amendments designed to win the support of moderate senators.

That package, which the Senate was expected to approve late last week, would authorize additional child-care funding and remove job-training provisions from the bill.

Those provisions would convert federal vocational-education programs into block grants and tie them to the massive welfare-reform effort. Education advocates have argued that the block-grant plan--which is likely to be considered later as a separate bill--could divert scarce vocational-education dollars into welfare programs. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

"This was a big, big victory to get these provisions out so they wouldn't get lost in welfare," Nancy O'Brien, a lobbyist for the American Vocational Association, said last week.

During several days of marathon debate on the welfare measure last week, the Senate approved amendments to authorize funding for sex-education programs stressing abstinence, provide bonuses to states that reduce illegitimacy rates, and require parents on public assistance to sign parental-responsibility contracts.

A final vote on the bill, S 1120, is scheduled for this week.

Curbing Illegitimacy

In the first major change to the bill, a bipartisan coalition of moderate senators voted 66-34 to remove the "family cap" provision, which would have denied additional benefits to mothers who have more children while on public assistance.

The sponsor of the amendment, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., argued that banning such payments would do little to reduce pregnancy rates but could lead to more abortions.

"Do we really know if we say 'no cash benefits' that others are going to stop having children?" Mr. Domenici asked. "If you believe that ... you believe in the tooth fairy."

The Senate also rejected a related amendment prohibiting cash payments to unwed teenage mothers, 76-24.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., had added both provisions to the bill before bringing it to the floor, under pressure from conservative senators seeking to curb the rising number out-of-wedlock births.

Both provisions are included in the welfare-reform bill the House passed in March, and will likely be points of contention when the two measures go to a conference committee, probably later this month.

Mr. Dole has said that if S 1120, the proposed Work Opportunity ACT of 1995, fails to pass this week, it could be wrapped into the enormous budget-reconciliation bill that will carry changes to entitlement programs designed to help balance the budget. (See related story, this page.)

Both chambers' welfare-reform plans seek to dismantle the current federal welfare system and transfer control of over most welfare programs, serving millions of children and families, to the states. They would also limit the length of time that someone could receive welfare and require recipients to go to work after two years.

Child Care

Democrats and moderate Republicans have argued that if parents are required to work, they should have access to child care. Both welfare bills would transfer control of federal child-care programs to the states, but do not require states to offer child care to welfare mothers who are forced to work.

After an amendment that would have authorized $11 billion to pay for child-care programs for welfare mothers came within two votes of passage last week, lawmakers agreed to include a child-care provision in the compromise package. The new provision would boost authorized funding for an existing child-care block grant from $5 billion to $8 billion and earmark the new funding for welfare programs.

Other amendments that were approved last week would:

  • Give a 5 percent "bonus" in welfare funding to states that reduced their illegitimacy rates by 1 percent. If a state lowered the rate by 2 percent, it would receive a 10 percent benefit. However, states would be disqualified if their abortion rates increased.
  • Require paternal grandparents of a child receiving welfare to pay child support. Under the bill, unwed mothers under 18 would be required to live with their parents to receive cash benefits. This amendment would obligate the parents of the child's father to contribute to the child's welfare as well.
  • Authorize $10 million over five years for demonstration projects that establish community-based learning centers in schools.
  • Require parents who receive welfare benefits to sign a "parental responsibility contract," in which they would agree to participate in their children's schooling and keep their children immunized.
  • Allow states to offer tax credits to families hoping to adopt a child, as long as their annual income was less than $60,000.
  • Authorize unspecified funding for the development of abstinence-based sex-education programs.

Mixed Reactions

As the Senate reshaped the welfare-reform bill last week, observers offered both accolades and criticism.

"Our [current] welfare system is encouraging people to make bad decisions," said Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a conservative group that lobbies on family issues. "We should not continue a cycle of payment for bad behavior."

But Deborah Weinstein, the director of the family-income division at the Children's Defense Fund, a liberal child-advocacy group, said the Senate bill imperils long-standing efforts to protect children and families.

"There is a 60-year-old promise to poor children that is being broken here," she said, noting that such children would no longer be guaranteed benefits under either welfare bill.

"We are still working hard to make as many improvements [in the Senate bill] as possible," Ms. Weinstein said.

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