Charting a course to the right of many of the nation’s Republican officials, Sen. Hillary Clinton created a stir two weeks ago by endorsing welfare reform legislation that would force welfare recipients to work 40 hours a week–instead of the current 30–and also limit states’ ability to exclude some recipients from mandatory work.
“We’re disappointed,” said state Assemblymember Deborah Glick, speaking for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ task force on welfare reauthorization. “The states are universally concerned that increasing work requirements will result in states having to create make-work programs in order to avoid penalties.”
Her bipartisan task force has been lobbying Congress to maintain the working hours currently required of welfare recipients under the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which is set to expire September 30. One prime virtue of the current law, argue state representatives–including Governor Pataki’s own welfare chiefs at the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the Republican-led National Governor’s Association and arch-conservative Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah–is that it allows states enough leeway to create flexible local welfare programs.
Sen. Clinton’s favored proposal would change that. The Bayh-Carper bill–endorsed by Clinton and eight other Democratic senators–adopts the same basic approach to welfare reform proposed by President George W. Bush and passed by House Republicans: It maintains current funding levels–$16.5 billion a year–and proposes tougher work requirements, not just by upping the mandated work week to 40 hours, but by requiring that 70 percent of each state’s adult welfare recipients do some kind of work, up from the current law’s 50 percent.
Sen. Clinton sees the Bayh-Carper bill as a critical bargaining chip for discussions with Bush because it includes a critical element excluded from the president’s proposal: $8 billion for child care over five years. Under the Bayh legislation, Clinton’s staff notes, the tough work requirements won’t kick in unless the feds and states fund tens of thousands of new child care slots.
The senator’s critics question whether this child care funding is a guarantee. And now that proponents of maintaining or reducing work requirements have lost the support of what they considered one of the more liberal members of the U.S. Senate, some of her critics add, the Bush Administration’s 70 percent – 40 hour framework is practically a done deal. “Once Democrats say that 70-40 is acceptable,” says Don Friedman, a senior policy analyst at the Community Food Resource Center in New York, “It does seem like it’s a given now.”
Glick and others lament that New York’s junior senator didn’t sign on to one of the bills that adds funding and bonuses for states that reduce child poverty without toughening work requirements, like that proposed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and another soon to be introduced by Sens. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Jon Corzine of New Jersey.
“We’re mystified as to why she felt the need to go on the most conservative Democratic bill,” said Deepak Bhargava, a spokesperson for the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a Washington-based coalition of advocacy groups. “She represents tens of thousands of New Yorkers who have struggled with welfare reform, and she’s doing nothing for them.”