Fine-Tuning Welfare Reform

Reform of the 1996 welfare reform act is under way in Congress. The key issues are how much to increase work requirements for those on welfare and how much to increase child-care subsidies.

A bill passed by the House would raise the work requirement from 30 to 40 hours a week and would require states to place 70 percent, instead of 50 percent, of their recipients in work or work-related activities.

The Senate, which has yet to act, should accept that increase. Higher expectations of welfare recipients has worked well to get many off welfare.

The House bill would raise day-care support from $2.1 billion to only $3.1 billion, while the likely Senate bill would raise the subsidy to $8 billion over five years.

The Senate figure would go further in helping women leave welfare. But both chambers need to set strict, short-time limits on how long a recipient receives those subsidies. Free day care should not create a whole new dependency on government.

A broader area needing Senate attention is giving states more flexibility. Critics of the House bill say it piles too many new demands on states, which have proven to be the engines of reform. In fact, the bill has more flexibility than it's given credit for. Sixteen of the 40 required hours can be used for training, education, or other activities that enhance employability.

Still, the Senate would do well to build in even more flexibility. In particular, states should have the ability to alter the work requirement when welfare recipients are enrolled in time-intensive training or education.

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