Don't mess with success - at least not too much.
That appears to be the philosophy as both the Bush White House and Democrats lay out their plans to modify welfare reform, the landmark law that's up for renewal this fall.
Although the president's proposals have generated considerable criticism this week, political observers describe them as more of a tuneup than an overhaul of the 1996 law. Neither party, it seems, wants to risk derailing a reform that has cut the welfare caseload in half, increased the income of single mothers, and helped bring child poverty to its lowest level in nearly 25 years.
"The big story here is that both parties have concluded that welfare reform was a success and we should do more of it," says Bruce Reed, former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton, who embraced the sweeping GOP reform effort six years ago.
Of all the items on President Bush's domestic "to do" list, says Mr. Reed, reauthorization of welfare reform is one of the few that is expected to make it through Congress this year. "I think it's a good start," he says of the president's plan, which, like a Democratic Senate proposal unveiled yesterday, places a greater emphasis on the core principle behind the 1996 law - requiring work in exchange for benefits.
Still, plenty of disagreements remain over how the law should be changed from here. The administration, for instance, wants to reduce welfare cases by encouraging marriage. That is seen by some on the left and right as an improper role for government - a form of "social engineering."
But the most controversial aspect is the mandate that states roughly double the number of welfare recipients who have to work - and increase their time on the job from 30 to 40 hours a week. To require more work at a time of recession-induced layoffs is "bizarre," says Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. "It dramatically increases the work requirement, but there is not one new penny for child care, for transportation to work, or training," he says.
Critics also fault the plan for not doing enough to help poor, legal immigrants. One of the most controversial aspects of the 1996 law was that it cut legal immigrants from welfare assistance, although they pay taxes and are eligible to serve in the military. Bush wants to restore their eligibility for food stamps after they've lived in the US for five years, but Bhargava and others say they deserve parity with US citizens.
On the demand to require higher numbers of recipients to work, however, the White House is not alone. A bill introduced yesterday by Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Thomas Carper of Delaware would require states to increase the proportion of working welfare recipients to 70 percent of a state's caseload - exactly what the White House is proposing.
And like the administration, it would hold federal block grants to the states at the current $16.6 billion level - neither increasing the funding for inflation, as some Democrats want, nor cutting it because of the substantial drop in welfare cases, as some Republicans demand.
"The principle that everyone is operating on is that the success of welfare reform is it demanded work," says Mark Kornblau, a spokesman for Senator Bayh.
Indeed, the 1996 reform law marked the biggest change in the treatment of the poor since President Johnson's War on Poverty. It eliminated unconditional cash assistance to the poor because of a belief, backed up by research, that it only perpetuated poverty.
It was replaced with a system of rewards and sanctions, in which welfare recipients have to work, or move toward work, in order to receive their benefits. "Too many Americans still have not found work and the purpose it brings," Bush said this week.
On average, states currently require only about five percent of adult welfare recipients to work.
That's because states get
"credits" for the number of people they move off the welfare rolls: As more people find permanent jobs, the fewer people still on assistance they have to force to work. Both the president and Senate Democrats want to do away with the credit system so that the bulk of welfare adults are working - although the White House would allow two days a week for education or training.
A White House official admits that the most heated debate is expected to come over the fact that its plan provides no additional funds for the support services, like day care, that would be needed to get more people working - a definite sticking point for Democrats Bayh and Carper.
Interestingly, the president's emphasis on government assistance to encourage marriage and teen abstinence - both viewed as a bow to conservatives - is not seen by Democratic centrists as scuttling a welfare deal. Bush proposes relatively little spending in this area. It's at the "margins of the debate," says Reed.