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Advocates Fear Harmful Effects of Welfare Law

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The new federal welfare law that takes effect this week is kinder to children than early drafts circulated in Congress, but advocates for poor children say the shift in social policy could have damaging effects.

The impact on children largely depends on how states implement the Republican-sponsored measure that President Clinton signed in August. The law ends several federally administered welfare programs and replaces them with block grants that give states broad leeway in how they spend welfare funds.

Beyond its effects on many of the poor children teachers see each day, observers note, the law could affect the way administrators count students for some programs, upset the balance between vocational training and immediate employment, and even influence what is emphasized in sex-education courses.

Still, after a legislative season that began with talk of a new network of orphanages, the ripple effect of the final law is hard to gauge.

"There is much that didn't happen," said Deborah Weinstein, the director of the family-income division at the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group. "But we still think that this loss of the federal guarantee of cash assistance is a blow to children."

Under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grant--the program that replaces Aid to Families with Dependent Children--most recipients will be required to work or perform community service after two years, and families will not be allowed to stay on welfare for more than five years. In addition, teenage mothers must now stay in school to receive benefits.

The TANF block grant provides a yearly total of $16.38 billion to support needy families and create or subsidize employment. States are required to put a certain percentage of their caseloads to work or face penalties. For the first year, the required work-participation rate is 25 percent; the percentage will climb to 50 percent in 2002.

Schools Face Changes

How will schools be affected?

Most aspects of the law hit public schools indirectly, but educators should still take note, child advocates say.

"Family circumstances have a very strong effect on how kids perform in school," said Jane Hannaway, a co-director of the education program at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Low-income children with disabilities will have a more difficult time meeting new eligibility requirements for Supplemental Security Income, and schools also will need to serve teen mothers who are returning to class in order to stay on welfare.

Many of those students dropped out before they got pregnant and had poor attendance and study skills when they were in school, said Donna Butts, the executive director of the National Organization for Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting in Bethesda, Md.

And school administrators will notice changes, too. Currently, the number of students on AFDC is one factor used in calculating funding for the federal Title I program, which provides remedial education for disadvantaged children.

TANF won't be as reliable a measure of poverty because of the restrictions it sets on who can receive benefits, said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools.

"We could stand to lose some money," said Mr. Simering, whose group represents large urban school districts. "Just because children are not on welfare anymore doesn't mean they're not poor."

Child Care Is Key

Access to child care is necessary if thousands of mothers on welfare are going to be employed, experts agree.

The new law rolls a variety of federally funded child-care programs into one Child Care and Development Block Grant and increases spending by $4 billion, for a total of $13.85 billion over six years.

But observers doubt the extra money will stretch far enough to meet the increased demand created when, as envisioned, more mothers go to work.

That shortage stands to increase the need for before- and after-school programs because mothers with children over age 6 are not exempted from the work requirement, even if they can't find child care.

Children in some family day-care programs--child care based in private homes--also will be affected. Providers in poor areas will continue to receive meal reimbursements through the Child and Adult Care Food Program, but providers in middle-class neighborhoods will see a reduction in those funds beginning next July.

Meanwhile, the landmark law also attempts to improve child-support collections by setting up a system of registries that make it easier for states to locate deadbeat parents.

Barbara Grob, the director of the Child Support Reform Initiative, a San Francisco-based project designed to raise awareness about child support issues, called the provision a "small improvement on a severely dysfunctional system." She would rather see a national collection system run by the Internal Revenue Service.

What Next for States?

In many ways, federal officials have left the ball in the court of state legislators.

States must write plans for the new TANF program. States that want to receive funds immediately will act right away, but the law give states almost a full year to adopt localized welfare reforms, setting a June 30 deadline.

Even though the AFDC program ended as of Oct. 1, families will continue to receive assistance until their state gets its block-grant money.

States must also determine whether to exercise various options open to them, such as exempting mothers with children under age 1 from the work requirement or requiring families on welfare to prove that their children are attending school.

States also can use their own money to continue providing some benefits to legal immigrants, who otherwise are cut off from food stamps and SSI until they become citizens.

Michael Fix, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute, said it's likely that some states will "pick and choose between vulnerable populations," such as children, when deciding who should receive assistance.

Immigrants are not barred from Head Start or college-loan programs, and both legal and illegal immigrants can still receive federally subsidized school lunches and breakfasts.

And beginning in 1998, $50 million will be available to the states for sexual-abstinence education.

Job-Training Confusion

The welfare reform law represents a shift away from job training, opting instead to push people directly into jobs.

But the provision allowing some people on welfare to attend high school or a vocational program is creating confusion among educators.

The law says 20 percent can participate in such programs, but vocational educators aren't clear whether that means 20 percent of all welfare recipients or just 20 percent of those who are required to work.

"We obviously would prefer the broader definition," said Nancy O'Brien, the assistant executive director for government relations at the American Vocational Association.

This law, she argued, neglects the benefits of an education and emphasizes "short-term job-skill attainment that gets you immediately into the workforce, but may not do much to keep you in the workforce."

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