Washington President Bush, seeking to toughen a 1996 law that cut welfare rolls in half, urged Congress on Tuesday to push more people from public assistance into jobs.
"Work is the pathway to independence and self-respect," Bush told 500 people at a church in a poor neighborhood. "Many are learning it is more rewarding to be a responsible citizen than a welfare client; it is better to be a breadwinner respected by your family."
Critics questioned the wisdom of forcing people with little education or work experience to find jobs in a recession, but Bush said there would be enough for all. "We've got a plan to make sure the economy grows," he said. Bush's economic recovery plan is stalled in the Senate.
Bush, who campaigned as a "compassionate conservative," offered a blend of tough new requirements on states, which administer welfare programs, and initiatives to help recipients make the transition from welfare to work. Congress must renew the 1996 law this year.
He pledged $200 million in federal funds, plus $100 million in matching state funds, for programs aimed at getting low-income couples with children to marry, and he would maintain the five-year ban on benefits for legal immigrants.
The average state has about 30 percent of its welfare cases working; Bush would require states to get to 50 percent immediately and 70 percent by 2007. The Bush plan also would eliminate credits that have allowed states to meet the requirements by reducing the total number of welfare cases, instead of the percentage of those in jobs.
Bush also would allow states to put recipients in education, training and other programs for up to two days a week, or 16 hours. In addition, states could put people into job training or drug rehabilitation full time for three months, once every two years.
Bush's audience in predominantly black southeast Washington reacted coolly to his tough-love approach. They sat silently through his speech, when he praised the 1996 law and outlined his measures for buttressing it.
"Welfare reform in 1996 was good and sound and compassionate public policy," Bush said. "We are encouraged by the initial results of welfare reform, but we're not content."
He drew cheers, however, when he praised single mothers and said: "In many cases, their lives and their children's lives would be better if their fathers had lived up to their responsibilities."
To advance its case, the White House went out of its way to assert that it was the 1996 law, and not the booming economy of the 1990s, that caused welfare rolls to drop by more than half. Outside experts say the economy played a major role, as did the tough new rules and state policies that kicked people off assistance for sometimes minor violations.
Last year about 2.1 million families were on assistance, down from 5.1 million in 1994, when welfare rolls peaked.