The House has included a major restructuring of the nation's welfare system in its massive budget cutting bill, which would substantially increase the hours of work, training and community service the poor would have to perform to qualify for assistance.
President Bush has sought the changes for nearly four years but has been unable to get them through the Senate. Now Republicans have slipped them into a voluminous bill designed to save nearly $50 billion over five years by imposing new costs on Medicaid recipients, squeezing student lenders, cutting federal child support enforcement, narrowing eligibility for food stamps and trimming agriculture subsidies.
Those cuts have been the focal point of debate over the bill, while 71 pages of the 830-page measure that are devoted to changes in welfare have gone largely unnoticed. Administration and House Republican officials say such budget bills -- which are easier to pass because they cannot be filibustered in the Senate -- are designed to make necessary but difficult changes to entitlement programs such as welfare.
But Democratic lawmakers and governors from both parties say such broad changes should be debated and voted on separately.
"What you're seeing is a way for them to hide the issue," said Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means subcommittee that has jurisdiction over welfare. "It's a familiar technique for issues that can't be passed otherwise."
The changes would have a huge impact on the lives of the 2 million adult Americans who remain on welfare. For states to avoid federal sanctions, most recipients would have to spend 40 hours a week in activities out of the house, substantially more than they do now.
Democrats and liberal advocacy groups charge that the harsher work rules are not backed up by the funding to subsidize child care. Moreover, the larger budget bill's cuts to food stamps and Medicaid could add still more financial pressure as welfare recipients transition to the ranks of the working poor.
"There is no good argument for these increased work requirements," said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor who quit the Clinton administration in protest over the 1996 welfare restructuring. "People have demonstrated they wanted to get off welfare and go to work. They don't need an extra push with a stick."
The new changes are a follow-on to the 1996 bill, whose supporters argued it was needed to end the cycle of dependence on government.
Wade Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services, disputed critics who opposed the 1996 changes, which he said have been successful. The changes in the House bill reflect the reality that part-time, low-wage work cannot lift a family out of poverty, but even at modest wages, workers can pull themselves above the poverty line working full time and collecting the earned income tax credit, he said.
"We're not big, mean conservatives, trying to punish the poor," he said. "States have been focusing on part-time work because that's what we told them to do. The standard should be what most Americans think work is: full-time work."
Some welfare recipients such as Shontice Fields, 27, would face significant upheaval. Under District of Columbia rules, Fields's life is already complicated. She is up by 6:30 a.m. to get her sons, Teshon, 2, and Terrell, 6, ready for day care and school. By 7:30, Teshon has been delivered to his babysitter. By 8:45, Fields is back at her C Street NE home to walk Terrell to school.
Then she hops on a bus for the 20-minute ride to Catholic Community Services, where she spends 20 hours a week studying for her high school equivalency degree and meeting the activity requirement for her monthly $379 welfare check. She has just enough time to get back home to settle her sons in after school. Double the activity hours, as the House bill would do, and the Fieldses could be in trouble, she said.
"Right now, it's a struggle to make sure my kids get picked up on time, make sure they do their homework," she said. "They have to realize you still have to discipline your kids."
Another welfare recipient, Amy Lee Durkee, 33, has cobbled together enough pre-nursing school studies and advocacy work at the family resource center at San Francisco's City College to meet California's welfare work rules. On top of that are the visits to her case worker, her studies and caring for her 8- and 4-year-old kids.
"Most of us, we want to work hard, to go to school, to get good jobs, to get ourselves and our families out of poverty," she said. "Just telling us, work 40 hours a week somewhere, anywhere, that's not helping."
The changes in the House bill involve multiple layers to ensure that states stick to tougher work rules. Under the requirements imposed in 1996, states are supposed to have half their welfare recipients working to avoid sanctions that eat into their welfare block grants, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Welfare recipients have to work, do community service or take vocational education classes for 20 hours a week. They are also expected to be out of the house 10 more hours a week, in education, volunteer or community service programs.
A quirk in the 1996 law gave states an incentive to cut their welfare rolls, by giving them "credits" that lessen the work requirements in proportion to the amount states lower their welfare rolls. Since such rolls have plummeted, virtually all states have collected enough credits so that no state has to impose the 30-hour work requirement.
To avoid sanctions under the changes in the House bill, states now would have to have 70 percent of their welfare recipients working, not 50 percent. The credits from past welfare roll reductions used to offset that percentage would be wiped out. Future declines in welfare rolls could be used to lower the 70 percent threshold, but HHS's Horn said the administration wants a "hard floor" of 50 percent at work.
Those at work would have to work longer. The 20-hour work rule would be raised to 24 hours, while additional activities would jump from 10 hours a week to 16. That 40-hour total would apply to all adults, including mothers such as Shontice Fields, with children younger than 6, who now must work only half that time.
Horn emphasized that states would be given broad latitude to decide which activities count toward those 16 hours. They could include getting substance abuse treatment or attending a child's soccer game, he said, just as long as the activities get people out of the house.
Opponents say the complexity of all these changes will lead to havoc in state governments and hardships to parents.
"What kind of bureaucracy is going to be set up to make sure you're out of the house 40 hours a week, and who's going to pay for the child care?" asked Helen Blank, director of public policy at the National Women's Law Center. "It's punitive. It's crazy."
But supporters say the changes are vital if the government is serious about lifting able-bodied adults out of poverty and into work.
"The left likes to say we have all these working poor families, but the reality is, the typical poor family with children works only 800 hours a year," not the 2,080 hours a full-time job entails, said Robert E. Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "That's why they're poor."
For additional child-care needs, the bill provides $500 million in added funds over five years -- half the amount an earlier House welfare bill included and a fraction of the $8.3 billion the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said would be needed to help parents meet the additional work requirements.
But Republicans say the CBO estimate is inflated. In 1996, CBO estimated that the welfare reform law would shortchange the cost of work requirements by $13 billion through 2002. Instead, as welfare rolls shriveled and welfare payments dropped, the states found themselves with $6 billion in unspent welfare block grants. Some $2 billion in surplus funds still exist and could be spent on child care if states so choose, if the welfare changes pass, Horn said.
Besides, Horn said, a provision stipulates that individuals are not to be penalized for refusing work because they lack child care.
Critics of the changes are undeterred by the experience of the last welfare restructuring. From their 14.3 million peak in 1994, the welfare rosters have dropped to about 5 million -- with 3 million of those children, Georgetown's Edelman said. Those declines freed up big sums for child care, job training and other assistance, but the trend cannot continue at that pace.
Federal funding for child care had been effectively frozen since 1996, already forcing more than half the states to cut back on assistance, especially for families that have worked their way off welfare and are increasingly left on their own, Blank said.