Washington At the White House, President Bush on Tuesday called for welfare recipients to work more hours. In state capitals throughout the United States, welfare officials asked: How?
Facing their worst budget deficits in decades, states have cut back support services designed to wean families from government checks.
Tens of thousands of children have been cut off from subsidized day care. Millions will soon lose subsidized health insurance. Less money is available to buy bus passes for poor families with no transportation to work. Even job-training programs face deep cuts.
Bush has called for holding welfare funding stable at $17 billion in the next fiscal year -- the same amount that has been authorized every year since 1996.
He argued that because welfare rolls have been slashed in half in the past seven years, states will be able to spend more money per welfare family even though the federal grant will hold steady.
"In states with the strongest work incentives, single parents have seen larger increases in income than in states with weaker work requirements," Bush said. "The time has come to strengthen that law."
In the states, however, budget officials and advocates for the poor argued that Bush was missing the point.
To keep the welfare rolls low, they said, they need to spend heavily on the families that are already off public assistance but could slip back into dependence at any setback. Parents need reliable child care, health insurance and transportation if they are to hold down jobs. And most minimum-wage workers can't afford those services without subsidies.
At the same time, advocates for the poor said families remaining on welfare after seven years of tough work-for-your-check requirements face tremendous obstacles to holding down jobs. In New York, for example, about half are illiterate, according to Mark Dunlea, an organizer with the Hunger Action Network. Welfare experts in several states said they could not see how they could force more of those people into 40-hour-a-week jobs -- at least, not without spending money that no state claims to have.
"Structurally, there's just no way for us to maintain the full array of support services we've offered, at least as long as this recession lasts," said Ken Miller, a welfare adviser to Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat.
Responding to states' pleas for help, Democrats and moderate Republicans have proposed $8 billion to $11 billion in additional funding for child-care expenses. Bush wants to spend $4.8 billion.
The president argued Tuesday that the paramount goal of the welfare system should be to get parents into jobs, suggesting that, once they have a foothold in the working world, they will be able to lift their families out of poverty.