WASHINGTON – Congress last week passed a stopgap measure to keep the 1996 welfare reform act alive for another three months — three months of uncertainty for states and welfare recipients, advocates say.
“For women on welfare there is already tremendous stress in terms of getting through the day. Not knowing what changes there are going to be adds another layer of stress,” said Lisa Maatz vice president of government relations at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Moreover, she said, states could be caught unprepared when Congress finally does act. That is a particular concern for states, like Maryland, that are grappling with overextended budgets.
“The fact that it is taking so long is a concern for states because if there are changes to the bill they need time to ramp up their budgets to adjust,” Maatz said.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was set to expire Monday, but proposals to reauthorize the law have been hung up by differences between the House and Senate.
With the deadline looming and no resolution in sight, Congress on Thursday voted to continue the current program until the end of the year.
Despite concerns over the strain that congressional inaction puts on state budgets and welfare recipients, advocates are not necessarily pushing for immediate action.
“The notion of rushing through a bill just to be able to say we’re done this session is not acceptable,” Maatz said.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, that was enacted in the 1996 welfare act made several fundamental changes to the old welfare law. The reform program is guided by welfare-to-work and marriage promotion principles aimed at reducing the numbers on welfare rolls. It also placed time limits on cash assistance for welfare recipients and increased work requirements.
The House’s plan for replacing TANF was the Personal Responsibility, Work, and Family Promotion Act, which it passed in May.
The House program expands welfare to include initiatives aimed at improving child well-being, reducing poverty and encouraging responsible fatherhood. It would increase the work requirement for recipients from 30 to 40 hours a week and uphold a ban on assistance for legal immigrants.
The Senate has its own plan, the Work, Opportunity, and Responsibility for Kids Act, which does not change the stated purposes of welfare.
The Senate plan calls for a significant expansion in welfare funding. It maintains the 30 hours-per-week work requirements, expands the definition of work activities, and makes greater allowances for higher education. It would give states the option to restore assistance for legal immigrants.
Despite the differences between the two chambers, few expect that Congress will not ultimately reach agreement on a new bill. In the meantime, advocates and administrators are proceeding under the old rules.
Richelle Friedman of the McAuley Institute said it would be “irresponsible on the part of Congress” to let the current law expire. But when a law expires in the affordable housing field, where McAuley is active, “we move along as before.”
Richard Larson, research director of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said state lawmakers are also assuming the status quo.
“In a very real sense the Maryland budget assumes a continuing resolution. The budget year continues until next June,” Larson said.
With so much else still to be done this session, Larson said that one possibility would be for Congress to pass a three-year continuing resolution to let the law stand as is. That would leave advocates without the meaningful debate that Maatz said matters more to them than simply getting the law passed.
But Larson said lawmakers “might just do it to get it over with.”