A compromise welfare bill, which easily won approval from both houses of Congress, has been lauded as a major step in welfare reform by members of both political parties, and President Ronald Reagan has promised to sign it.
Of Utah's congressional delegation, only Rep. Howard C. Nielson, R-Utah, opposed the measure, which he said would cost Utah more than existing programs.The compromise, expected to cost $3.34 billion over five years, aims to reduce dependency on public assistance, while requiring work for benefits. States must establish minimum standards for education, training, work experience and job search for assistance recipients. The regulations would be phased in beginning in 1990, when 7 percent of all recipients with children at least 3 years old must participate. The number rises to 20 percent by 1995.
The bill also creates a "bridge" so that those obtaining jobs can continue to receive subsidized day care and Medicaid benefits for one year.
Two-parent families who meet income eligibility standards will also be included, but states like Utah that do not currently offer Aid to Families with Dependent Children for two-parent, unemployed families (called AFDC-UP) need only offer assistance for six months each year. One of the parents will be required to perform 16 hours a week of community services to remain eligible.
The two-parent provision is similar to Utah's Emergency Work Program, which pays unemployed couples up to $110 a week for 32 hours' work and an 8-hour job search for up to six months in a year. Testimony about EWP's effectiveness in Utah was included in the final conference report.
Child support collection is also strengthened by a mandate that employers withhold support payments from paychecks of fathers whose children receive welfare.
Utah's Department of Social Services is pleased with the bill, said Robin Arnold-Williams, a staff member and one of the designers of Utah's pilot welfare reform project in Davis County.
"The compromise is totally in line with what we have in mind for the state," she said. "It will provide more federal funds for day care, which will help the state out tremendously. We're already at 20 percent employment, so we'll have no problem meeting the provisions."
Not everyone agrees. Mary Lee Allen of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., said the bill started on a "positive track to provide education, training, etc., for the most disadvantaged. But the final version includes mandates for old-fashioned, make-work assignments for two-parent families. They usually have the most work experience and it takes away programs and fundings from single-parent families, who need the training desperately and are most likely to stay on welfare for the long-term without it."
Despite that concern, Allen found much to praise in the bill. "It's significant in providing new funding for child care, not available now for education and training nationally, although it is there for employment. And it improves child support collection by automatic wage withholding."
The only cause for concern, Williams said, is the Medicaid provision.
Rod Betit, director of the Division of Health Care Financing, which administers Medicaid, said his office has not had time to study the financial impact to Medicaid. "But it could be very costly," he said.
Max Gift, who teaches self-sufficiency in district Office of Community Operation sites throughout the state, offered a caution: "I fear the new legislation is going to provide a gigantic work force of slave labor unless it's handled very, very carefully."