By Anita Kumar and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 5, 2009
RICHMOND -- As Robert F. McDonnell tried this week to distance himself from his controversial 1989 graduate school thesis, the Republican gubernatorial nominee repeatedly referred to a single piece of legislation: the state's landmark overhaul of the welfare system.
"If you want to know about public policy and how that translated over the years, it was the 1995 welfare reform bill that addressed many of these same issues of child care and working women,'' he told reporters peppering him with questions outside T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria on Tuesday.
The sweeping legislation, championed by then-Gov. George F. Allen (R) and supported overwhelmingly by both parties, was designed to transform what some considered a runaway government program into one that promoted personal responsibility and penalized "idle behavior." It imposed a two-year limit for public assistance and forced recipients to find a job, even if it was helping out in libraries or homeless shelters.
Some say the changes essentially penalized poverty and worsened some of the country's social ills, such as drug abuse and homelessness. But McDonnell, a former Virginia Beach legislator who helped negotiate the final compromise, uses the bill to try to refute the picture painted by his Regent University thesis, in which he described working mothers as "detrimental" to the family and criticized federal child-care tax credits for making it easier for women to work outside the home.
Supporters say the legislation provided aid for working mothers by offering them transportation and child care, helped families stay together and encouraged fathers to take responsibility for their children.
"It's very pro-family," Allen said. "Just look at the principles of it: hope, opportunity, independence."
But McDonnell's role in shepherding through the welfare overhaul might not sway critics who became incensed this week after his thesis surfaced and who believe it expresses McDonnell's true feelings.
"Whatever welfare reform did, it was not intended to empower women," said Marjorie Signer, president of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women. The paper, she said, posits a world view "that privileges the man, just as welfare reform privileged those who are already doing just fine and puts a greater burden on those who need help."
Virginia was the second state, after Massachusetts, to enact such stringent provisions. Lawmakers, particularly Republicans across the country, were clamoring to overhaul welfare, and Congress passed its own reform in 1996. Other states followed suit.
Since Virginia's overhaul, the number of welfare cases each month has more than halved, from an average of 73,000 in 1995 to about 34,000 in June 2009.
Welfare reform was designed to save taxpayers money, and the number of caseloads did decline, but that does not tell the whole story. According to a 2000 study by the state legislature's auditing agency, most of the jobs welfare recipients got put them below the poverty level. And a majority of former recipients who faced extra barriers, such as learning disabilities or a lack of transportation, were unemployed two years later.
Allen tapped McDonnell to introduce one of his biggest proposals -- welfare reform -- although he was in his third year in the legislature and not yet a leader in the House.
"I was interested in the issue because some of the laws that had been enacted in years past, particularly at the federal level . . . had really undermined families and not been supportive of single head of households working," McDonnell said. "The laws needed to be reformed."
McDonnell's bill was quickly killed along party lines in the Democrat-controlled legislature, but a similar Democratic version passed. R. Creigh Deeds, then a member of the House and now the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, voted for the bill.
The radical restructuring of the state's welfare system included provisions that allow recipients to open savings accounts and receive lump-sum payments in lieu of long-term public assistance, require mothers to identify the fathers of their children, and force unwed teenage mothers to live with a parent and attend school. Children born to mothers already receiving assistance do not qualify for benefits, but the law allows two-parent households to receive welfare for the first time.
Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) said she and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus opposed the bill because they were worried that mothers were being forced into low-paying jobs while having too little money to pay for child care.
" 'Punitive' is an understatement,'' Lucas said. "It was devastating."
In his thesis, McDonnell suggested that Republicans should be leaders in transferring the responsibilities of "social welfare" from the government to the private sector. By carrying that burden, he argued, government is meddling in the affairs of the family.
But McDonnell said this week that he believes that government should provide a "good, solid safety net" for residents. "We want to provide incentives for independence . . . to be able to do something to inspire and lift up human beings to rise to their highest and best," he said.
In later years, McDonnell got a bill passed that provided tax credits to employers who hired welfare recipients, and created a task force to encourage businesses to find jobs for those on public assistance.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.