WASHINGTON – AFL-CIO President John Sweeney denounced the welfare bill approved by the House May 16 for sharply increasing workfare requirements while scrimping on support services like childcare for the working poor. “Ending poverty for families requires good-paying and secure jobs with benefits, not a faster proliferation of low-skill and low-pay jobs,” Sweeney said.

In New York City, Sweeney charged, just 62 of the nearly 18,000 workfare participants in 2001 transitioned to regular city jobs. At the same time, 16,000 low-skilled public employees lost their jobs.

“Expanding workfare will displace those working today without making substantial gains in moving TANF [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] recipients to jobs,” he said. “Expanded workfare will result in a zero-sum gain for the state and a personal loss for thousands of workers.”

The National Organization for Women accused the House of “Kicking dirt in the face of millions of poor mothers who work every waking hour to keep their children safe and healthy,” and charged that the GOP majority “rubber-stamped the harsh 40-hour work requirements proposed by the president.”

The House brushed aside a bill by Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) that focused on “helping welfare recipients out of poverty rather than just reducing welfare roles,” as she put it. Her bill would have ended the five-year lifetime limit on public assistance and provided assistance for recipients seeking higher education.

Instead, the House approved the Bush administration’s TANF reauthorization bill by 229 to 197 with only 14 Democrats voting for it and only four Republicans against.

The grassroots movement fighting for a program to help the poor out of poverty is now focusing on the Senate as it takes up its version of TANF reauthorization.

The House bill requires at least 70 percent of a state’s welfare recipients to be engaged in workfare by the year 2007. Recipients must engage in supervised activity for 40 hours each week, of which 24 hours must be actual work. These rigid rules apply even if a state is in a deep recession with few jobs and plummeting state revenues. Since searching for a job is not counted as a “work-related activity” the clock keeps ticking on the five-year limit even as a poor person searches for employment.

The bill increases childcare funding by $2 billion, far short of what is required to cover a 40-hour workfare week. Currently only 12 percent of workfare mothers are covered by the $4.8 billion federal childcare subsidies. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) said, “How can a Congress that speaks so eloquently of family values pass legislation that clearly threatens our neediest families? By increasing work requirements, this bill forces parents to be away from their children for longer hours without providing adequate money for day care.”

The House-passed bill funds TANF at current levels, $16.5 billion a year from 2003 to 2007, with no increase for inflation.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) warned in a May 17 report of the “superwaiver” provision in the GOP bill. “Executive Branch officials would have virtually unfettered authority to approve waivers and effectively rewrite federal laws,” the report charged. “Resources could be shifted from poor families to families that have higher incomes and less need but represent more powerful constituencies.”

The GOP leadership inserted language prohibiting states from shifting funds directly from one anti-poverty program to another, an attempt to quiet alarm over the super-waiver provision.

However, the report points out, “The superwaiver would give state budget directors and governors access to billions of dollars in federal food stamp funds to address budgetary and political problems they face.” This provision, the report said, will cost $65 billion next year and $670 billion over 10 years.

States could “lower the food stamp income limits, which would terminate eligibility for some low-income working families and elderly and disabled people, or reduce benefits across the board.

A “creative” governor like Michigan’s John Engler “can readily find ways to use the freed-up food stamp resources in ways that benefit the state treasury. Such action, however, would unravel the nutritional safety net the Food Stamp Program provides and would constitute a momentous change in federal social policy.”

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