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With stringent new work requirements for welfare recipients set to take full effect nationwide in October, local welfare officials are scrambling to help their allies in Washington take advantage of a Democratic Congress and get the feds to alter regulatory changes made when Republicans were the majority party.

Last spring, Congress overhauled Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the federal welfare program. Welfare program officials and advocates alike balked at statutory changes, arguing that they actually would thwart state efforts to get people into family-sustaining jobs.

Most attention focused on the work rate required of states, which technically stayed at 50 percent, but was in effect raised significantly by a change in calculating the caseload reduction credit. The credit reduces states’ work requirement one percent for every percentage drop in caseload; because the changes measured the drop since 2005, when caseloads were at an all-time low, instead of against 1995, when many states’ rolls were near historic highs, most states will need to move far more of their clients into work – even as an increasing share of their clients face serious health and social problems that keep them from doing so.

Once the law was changed, Bush administration officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) settled on specific regulations and definitions, choosing an approach that strictly limited what could count as work; for example, job search and rehabilitation activities can be counted for no more than six weeks combined. States are subject to significant financial penalties if they fail to meet the work rate.

When Congress switched parties this winter, advocates and welfare officials across the country, New York City and state included, shifted into high gear, trying to get Congress to intervene, either by getting DHHS to relax the definitions or making changes via legislation. Their demands include allowing job search and rehabilitation to count beyond six weeks, excluding clients from the work rate during their first month of aid or while applying for federal disability benefits, and increasing child care funding.

“No one believes Congress wanted to restrict job searches,” said Elaine Ryan, of the American Public and Human Services Association (APHSA), a lobbying group for state welfare agencies. “A lot of it is to go back and ask [Congress] to clarify.”

Local officials are hopeful that the switch in congressional leadership will do the trick. Early this month a House subcommittee convened a hearing on TANF, at which New York state’s welfare commissioner David Hansell testified. “When I testified [on March 6], I got a very different response” from an appearance before the committee in 2005, said Hansell, who previously served in New York City’s Human Resources Agency as chief of staff, at a recent New School forum. “Congress is going to look at real improvements.”

Indeed, New York may be particularly likely to sway debate. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, the Harlem Democrat who’s often sympathetic to poverty issues, now chairs the House’s powerful Ways and Means Committee; a spokesperson for Rangel said the committee was considering legislative remedies and urging the Bush administration to make changes. City representatives also have been meeting with federal staff on both sides of the aisle over the issue.

New York has much riding on it. Currently, 36 percent of the city’s welfare cases count toward the federal work requirement; recent caseload reductions, which give the city credit toward the work rate, still leave the city about 5 percent short of meeting the 50 percent mandate. Coupled with administrative requirements that will require daily check-ins with clients, falling short of the current regulations could result in more than $200 million in annual state penalties – roughly $130 million of which could be charged to New York City.

Not everyone is optimistic that change is on the way. While Rangel has voiced concern over poverty, Congressional attention on the issue lately has been directed more at improving low-wage jobs than dealing with the intricacies of a shrinking domestic welfare program.

“If you look at what Ways and Means is focusing on, it’s income inequality and making low-wage jobs better, which is really different from what’s happening with welfare reform,” said Margy Waller, who heads the Mobility Agenda at the Center for Community Change and has long watched federal welfare debates. “Going back in and having another conversation about what’s happening with TANF is not really a high priority for anyone.”

– Tracie McMillan

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