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Fight over putting more work in 'workfare'

Bush wants more welfare recipients to work for benefits, but critics fault timing.

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Don't mess with success - at least not too much.

That appears to be the philosophy as both the Bush White House and Democrats lay out their plans to modify welfare reform, the landmark law that's up for renewal this fall.

Although the president's proposals have generated considerable criticism this week, political observers describe them as more of a tuneup than an overhaul of the 1996 law. Neither party, it seems, wants to risk derailing a reform that has cut the welfare caseload in half, increased the income of single mothers, and helped bring child poverty to its lowest level in nearly 25 years.

"The big story here is that both parties have concluded that welfare reform was a success and we should do more of it," says Bruce Reed, former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton, who embraced the sweeping GOP reform effort six years ago.

Of all the items on President Bush's domestic "to do" list, says Mr. Reed, reauthorization of welfare reform is one of the few that is expected to make it through Congress this year. "I think it's a good start," he says of the president's plan, which, like a Democratic Senate proposal unveiled yesterday, places a greater emphasis on the core principle behind the 1996 law - requiring work in exchange for benefits.

Still, plenty of disagreements remain over how the law should be changed from here. The administration, for instance, wants to reduce welfare cases by encouraging marriage. That is seen by some on the left and right as an improper role for government - a form of "social engineering."

But the most controversial aspect is the mandate that states roughly double the number of welfare recipients who have to work - and increase their time on the job from 30 to 40 hours a week. To require more work at a time of recession-induced layoffs is "bizarre," says Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. "It dramatically increases the work requirement, but there is not one new penny for child care, for transportation to work, or training," he says.

Critics also fault the plan for not doing enough to help poor, legal immigrants. One of the most controversial aspects of the 1996 law was that it cut legal immigrants from welfare assistance, although they pay taxes and are eligible to serve in the military. Bush wants to restore their eligibility for food stamps after they've lived in the US for five years, but Bhargava and others say they deserve parity with US citizens.

Forcing more people to work
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