IF SOMETHING isn't broken, don't fix it. That was the principle we were following when, a few months ago, we argued against the Bush administration's proposal to use the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform law as an occasion to slip in an unnecessary change. True, the measure in question -- which the president proposed again this month in his second attempt to get the bill through Congress -- would plug a technical hole in the original law. This required states to make half of all welfare recipients work 30 hours per week but allowed them to treat people who had gone off welfare altogether as if they were still on the books but working. Because of the enormous, unexpected reduction in the welfare rolls, few states were actually forced by federal law to make recipients work, although some chose to do so. The administration wants to close this loophole and ultimately to require 70 percent of recipients to work 40 hours per week. Hours spent in education or training could not count toward the total.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with using the reauthorization to send a message to welfare recipients -- or rather to repeat the message that was sent by the 1996 law. It is only by working, after all, that welfare recipients will eventually escape poverty altogether. But in practice, the need to account for the 40 hours (or to dodge the requirement altogether, as many would) would put a big burden on state welfare bureaucracies and would risk putting a damper on whatever creativity states have shown in their efforts to reduce caseloads and help people into the workforce. And more creativity is badly needed. Ron Haskins, the welfare analyst who helped write the original bill, points out, for example, that while much of the money spent on education to date has indeed produced meager results, other solutions -- such as tailoring training programs to specific jobs in specific local markets, possibly with the help of local businesses -- have not been tried. These are the kinds of policies that might be stymied if bureaucrats need to spend their time filling out federal forms.
In considering the reauthorization, Congress should take into account this need for flexibility, particularly given that there are signs that the president himself may be willing to show some flexibility. Last summer, he quietly made clear his willingness to negotiate, if not the need for a work requirement, then at least the number of hours it would mandate, as well as the amount of extra child-care money that would be provided to help working mothers. As the bill wends its way through Congress over the next few weeks, lawmakers should take up his offer and press for more.