Welfare's Unfair Work Requirement

Heavier burdens are in store for single mothers who currently receive Temporary Aid to Needy Families—if the administration and the House of Representatives have their way in the re-authorization of the 1996 welfare reform law. The re-authorization was to have taken place before last Oct. 1, but Congress has been extending the law quarterly.


A major part of these counterproductive burdens will come as a result of the expanded work requirements for which the administration and the House are calling. Currently, a single mother receiving TANF is required to work 30 hours a week. President Bush and the House, however, want to see the work requirement expanded to 40 hours a week. Advocates for poor people see this as a misguided approach that will be harmful not only to low-income mothers, but to their children as well. Nor, with the economy in its present downward turn, are there even enough jobs available to make it possible for mothers on welfare to work 40 hours a week at a single job. Those presently complying with the 30-hour-a-week requirement often find that they can do so only by working two 15-hour-a-week jobs. Increasing the requirement to 40 hours might require the addition of a third part-time job.

While it is true that under the administration and House proposal (HR 4), the actual number of work hours would have to be only 24—the rest could be a combination of hours of education, training or helping at the school of the mother’s child—these other hours would have to be accounted for to local welfare departments. Such a requirement in itself creates an added burden. Time spent getting from one place to another, for example, would not count toward the 40 hours—traveling from one-part time job to another, then to a training program and, at the end of the day, to the child’s day care center before it closes at 6 p.m. Traveling itself poses problems, especially in suburban and rural areas, where inadequate public transportation systems can necessitate time-consuming waits.

Overall, the proposal of the administration and the House flies in the face of the kinds of realities that low-income single mothers face. Nor does it take into account the five-year federal limit for receiving TANF benefits. (Many states have imposed even shorter time limits: Connecticut’s is 21 months.) As Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, pointed out to America, the time limit alone provides enough pressure to prompt most mothers to move in the direction of seeking full-time employment as soon as possible.

The result of the increased work requirement, moreover, would be still further sanctions—the loss of part of the mother’s check. Under the law as it now stands, a state must terminate the parent’s share of the family’s benefits if the noncompliance lasts more than two months. But the House bill goes a step further; it would require the states to end the children’s benefits as well. These so-called full-family sanctions for noncompliance could easily—and tragically—lead to homelessness and family breakup. Nor is there any evidence that full-family sanctions would improve compliance with the work requirement. A final bill should not include them.

A further injustice is the administration’s and the House’s desire to wipe out the work exemption for the mothers of children under six. Currently they are spared the 30-hour-a-week work or work-related activity requirement: if the child is under six, the mother has to work only 20 hours a week. Very young children need a great deal of attention from parents, and 20 hours a week of work participation should therefore remain the maximum for these mothers of the youngest TANF recipients.

As for child care, at present less than 30 percent of eligible families receive child care assistance—far too few. Last year’s Senate Finance Committee bill increased mandatory funding for child care development block grants by $5.5 billion over five years. Final legislation should contain at least as much in mandatory child care funding. Mothers lucky enough to have full-time jobs who also have adequate arrangements for child care stand a good chance of both leaving and staying off the welfare rolls. With unemployment rates rising around the country, though, the rolls have also begun to rise. Women receiving TANF benefits will consequently need more help—not more negative pressures like those the administration and the House are seeking to impose on them—if they are to leave welfare permanently. It is now up to the Senate Finance Committee to hammer out a more reasonable approach to work and child care issues.

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