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HHS Secretary defends Bush welfare plan

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Government should be in the business of promoting healthy families, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Tuesday as he defended a controversial part of President Bush's welfare plan that would provide funds to states to encourage unwed mothers to marry.

Speaking on CNN's "American Morning," Thompson said the program was "a demonstration plan" and represented only a small part of the president's $19 billion welfare proposal. He said critics who say the government has no business in such affairs are off base.

Bush's budget includes a proposed $100 million for programs that promote marriage.

"It's going to allow five states to apply to set up programs to help individuals, council them, give them technical assistance, try and promote healthy marriages," Thompson said. "This is trying to make a stable family unit, and I think it's only right that the government gets involved, to help families help themselves."

Bush will present additional details of his plan to the winter meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington later on Tuesday.

Thompson said the Bush plan -- which updates and reauthorizes the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 -- would maintain the so-called "welfare-to-work" push and would "put a lot more emphasis on those individuals that are still receiving cash."

"We're going to still require work, but we're going to allow 16 hours out of every 40 hour week to get into job preparation, education, drug rehabilitation," he said.

The 1996 act requires welfare recipients to work after two years on assistance and cuts off assistance after five consecutive years, although states may set a shorter time period or extend the time for a small percentage of their caseloads.

The administration has noted that welfare caseloads fell 58 percent between January 1996 and June 2001. But some critics contend that the booming economy of the late 1990s had more to do with that drop than the welfare reform act -- and that the current sluggish economy could see a return to public assistance for many families.

But Thompson disagreed.

"We have seen a tremendous amount of people go from welfare to job, employment to independence," he said. "There's going to be some slippage of course, but overall it's been a huge success."




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