States May Lose Flexibility on Welfare

By Douglas J. Besharov Copyright The New York Times | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

States May Lose Flexibility on Welfare


Douglas J. Besharov Copyright The New York Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


During the debate over welfare reform, both liberals and conservatives made the new law seem tougher than it really is. Liberals, wanting to stir up opposition, painted bleak images of hungry children being tossed into the streets. The right, championing an end to the "culture of dependency," played up the harshest-sounding provisions of the bill.

But those familiar with the bill's specifics knew all along that it contained dozens of obscure loopholes that would let states soften the toughest of the federal mandates.

These loopholes were not accidents. They were intended to give states freedom to consider their particular needs when they refashioned welfare programs to meet the new federal goals. Now, however, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services say they are considering a strict legal interpretation of the law that would close the most important loopholes. Thus, despite President Bill Clinton's campaign promise to ease the most Draconian aspects of the welfare law, his administration is threatening to make the liberals' worst fears come true. Consider how the administration's tough new line would affect the law's most notorious provision: the five-year limit on all federal benefits. The welfare law allows states to exempt 20 percent of recipients from this time limit. But most policy experts assumed that the law would actually be much more flexible. For instance, most experts believed that a state would be able to give its own money to families that had reached the five-year time limit, with no federal strings attached. Because the law requires states to continue to spend at least 75 percent of their current welfare budget, most would have ample money on hand to help struggling families after they are cut off by Washington. Yet the Department of Health and Human Service's proposed approach would attach so many obstacles that states will be very hesitant to help these families. These obstacles include mandatory work requirements for a much higher percentage of caseloads; cutting off mothers who haven't identified the fathers of their children; and increasing the states' obligations to supply welfare data to Washington. The department's proposed tougher stance would also close a loophole that would otherwise allow states to use federal money to help families that have reached the five-year cut-off. This loophole is a provision that applies the time limit only to "a family that includes an adult who has received assistance . . . for 60 months." Before the department's recent disclosure, it looked as though a state could have provided assistance to a welfare mother for 59 months, at which point it could have terminated her grant but then continued federal aid to the children. States even thought they would have the ability to raise the child's grant to compensate for the loss of a parent's benefit. …

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