WASHINGTON – Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, called for reauthorization of the sweeping federal welfare reforms of 1996, with a new emphasis on lifting families out of poverty rather than pushing them off welfare rolls.
Cardin’s bill, introduced Thursday, would adjust annual Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) grants for inflation, earmark additional dollars for child care programs and restore eligibility for some welfare programs to legal immigrants, among other proposals.
“A guiding principal of this bill is to reduce poverty,” said Cardin, the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee. “If you look at the welfare roll reduction, we haven’t done as good a job at getting people out of poverty as we have in getting them off cash assistance.”
It would reauthorize the $16.5 billion allotted for welfare reform in 1996 and increase funding for expanded programs by as much as $30 billion. The bill has the backing of the Democratic members of Cardin’s subcommittee.
Republicans were quick to warn that Cardin’s bill would roll back some achievements of welfare reform that have succeeded in cutting caseloads and slashing child poverty.
“The 1996 welfare reforms are working, and working well,” said Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., in a prepared statement.
“I am wary of changes that would undermine that progress. As the old saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Herger, the chairman of the subcommittee.
Cardin and his supporters are likely to clash with conservative Republicans in this session’s welfare debate, said Mike Laracy, senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The GOP can be expected to focus on cutting illegitimate births and boosting two-parent families, he said.
“The debate is going to be about whether TANF reauthorization should focus on reducing poverty or strengthening the family structure,” Laracy said. “I think it’s always smart to be the first one out there, and Cardin is a serious player, but this is the kind of thing where you’re not going to see much compromise.”
Cardin said his bill would help Maryland continue its progressive approach in some areas of welfare, including extending benefits to recipients who hit the federal five-year time limit. Maryland also could profit from a provision that would give federal financial bonuses to states that curtail child poverty, he said.
“Maryland leads the nation in poverty reduction,” Cardin said. “This bill gives the flexibility to Maryland to continue being as progressive as it has been and provides the opportunity for the state to qualify for additional funds because of those poverty reductions.”
Cardin said boosting funding for support services could help the state provide better child-care options to low-income families and help children on welfare collect child support, areas where he said Maryland needs improvement.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy agency based in Takoma Park, said Cardin’s bill would correct a mistake that Congress made in 1996 when it pulled Social Security and TANF benefits from legal immigrants.
“If this piece of legislation passes, it’s going to be justice for the immigrant community,” Torres said. “These are people who have jobs, people who pay taxes and people who deserve this. It could make a tremendous difference in many, many low-wage families.”