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As Congress Delays, Faith Community Persists Despite
Years of Delays and Frustrations in Struggle for Welfare Policy that Lifts
Families Out of Poverty
April 8, 2004, WASHINGTON, D.C. - It’s a remarkable yet largely untold story and a fascinating case study - the U.S. faith community’s persistent work for a national welfare policy that truly helps lift families out of poverty.
Faith-based advocates’ work began in earnest in February 2001, a full year before the 1996 welfare reforms - Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and related programs -- were slated to come before the Congress for refinement and reauthorization. Under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, these advocates for low-income people met to write their platform for reforming the 1996 laws.
Their contention, based in large part on the findings of their nationwide survey of religious organizations and social service agencies, was that the 1996 “reforms” unjustly limit assistance to people who really can’t do without it, and do too little to support welfare recipients with childcare, transportation, health care coverage and other types of assistance to help them become and remain employed.
“We especially were concerned what would happen to the children” when their mothers went to work, or if their mothers “didn’t ‘play by the rules’ and were cut from the program,” said Kay Bengston, Director for Domestic Policy of the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, an NCC member communion.
Over the past three years, advocates from the NCC, its member denominations and other groups have sponsored strategy conferences, visits to legislators, e-mail listserves, Web-based resources (among them, an NCC “Issues and Actions Guide” at www.ncccusa.org/publicwitness/tanf.html), call-in days, news conferences, letter writing and other campaigns.
But right on up to the present, instead of taking definitive action, Congress has carried the 1996 policy forward with a series of extensions. The latest extension expired March 31, and both the House and Senate have passed short-term extensions of the current TANF program through June 30.
“It’s been a challenge for the advocacy community to stay organized, but we have persisted as an act of faithfulness to God,” said Brenda Girton-Mitchell, a Baptist who is the National Council of Churches’ Public Policy Director, Washington, D.C. “We will continue to resist amendments that make the bad 1996 policy worse, and to press for amendments that help rather than punish low-income people.”
On March 29, the U.S. Senate finally began to debate its welfare bill, H.R. 4 - and handed the faith community a big victory on March 30 when it voted 78-20 to approve the Snowe-Dodd amendment calling for a $6 billion increase in money to provide childcare for welfare recipients and other low-income families. The Bush Administration had fought the increase; all Democrats but one, along with 31 Republicans, approved the increase.
Faith-based advocates had campaigned actively for the Snowe-Dodd amendment and even delivered cutout paper “Snowe-flakes” to legislators to dramatize their support.
“Increasing access to childcare for low-income families has been a consistent top priority,” said Carolynn Race, Associate for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Washington Office and Chair of the Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs. “Ordinary Americans understand that for parents to go to work, they have to have access for safe and affordable childcare. That’s been missing for many families.”
With the Snowe-Dodd amendment, the Senate bill would increase the allocation for childcare by $7 billion over five years, and recognizes that after parents move off welfare - into jobs that are, most likely, low-wage - they still need help with childcare, Bengston said.
But then the Senate debate broke down in partisan wrangling, and action on H.R. 4 was deferred.
If the Senate fails to approve some version of the bill, a longer extension of the current program will be required. The House leadership has indicated that it will not continue to approve unamended extensions, and already has introduced two extension bills that would begin to enact into law an increase in work hours (even for parents of preschoolers), among other changes.
For its part, the faith-based advocacy community now is urging constituents to discuss welfare policy with their Senators in their home offices during the April 12-16 Congressional recess.
Mary Cooper, who continues to work on TANF for the NCC and The Episcopal Church following her retirement from the NCC, manages the Council’s TANF Advocacy Network listserve, and sent out the NCC’s latest action alert on April 5. The alert urges constituents to ask their Senators to support legislation that would:
- increase funding for child care (as they did with passage of the Snowe-Dodd amendment);
- restore TANF and health care benefits for legal immigrants;
- give states increased flexibility in determining what meets the work requirement (such as expanding the time allowed for vocational education from 12 to 24 months);
- give states flexibility to waive or extend work requirements and time limits for people facing severe barriers to employment;
- reject increased work requirements; and
- reject the "superwaiver" proposal that would allow states to waive federal rules in certain low-income programs, in the name of program coordination.
“If Congress cannot pass legislation that meets these standards, it should instead extend the current program - without changes - for at least two years,” the NCC’s alert says.
What will happen next in Congress is unclear at this point. But one thing is clear, said the PCUSA’s Carolynn Race: “Congress members need to keep hearing from people of faith that it is essential that they address the needs of people living in or near poverty. We have a responsibility to urge them to seek justice for all.”
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