Bush welfare plan promotes marriage, work
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Tuesday unveiled a welfare reform plan that touts marriage for unwed mothers and stiffens work requirements for recipients.
"Stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy," Bush said. "Building and preserving families are not always possible -- I recognize that -- but they should always be our goal."
Bush said his $19 billion plan builds on and expands the 1996 reform law that has worked to move people off welfare rolls and into the workforce. Congress is slated to consider extending that law later this year.
Bush delivered his speech at St. Luke's Catholic Church in the nation's capital, standing before a backdrop that read "Working toward independence" and was adorned with the words "Opportunity," "Work," "Family," and "Responsibility."
One of the most controversial parts of the president's plan is a focus on encouraging marriage between low-income couples. His proposal includes $300 million for programs that promote marriage.
Bush defended the proposal, saying his administration will give "unprecedented support to strengthening marriages," which in turn will improve the lives for millions of children.
"We will work to strengthen marriage," he said. "The most effective, direct way to improve the lives of children is to encourage the stability of American families."
The president said his new plan has three other main goals:
Bush would require more recipients to work
As part of the plan to raise the number of recipients holding down jobs, the administration wants to require states to ensure that 70 percent of recipients have jobs. Under the 1996 law, that requirement is 50 percent.
In addition, those recipients would be required to work 40 hours per week, up from the current 30 hours. However, states could count hours spent on education and training programs as part of that total.
"We must never be content with islands of despair in the midst of a nation of promise. We want all Americans to believe in the potential of their own lives and the promise of their own country," Bush said.
Yet advocates for the poor questioned the possible effects of demanding greater work requirements at a time of economic recession.
"The Bush welfare reauthorization proposal runs counter to everything we have learned in the past five years about what helps poor families survive," Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, told the Associated Press.
"The plan calls for a massive increase in the number of people required to work, an unrealistic proposal in the best of economic times, but truly bizarre in the middle of a recession. It represents a huge step backwards."
But White House officials dismissed such claims.
At a White House press briefing, spokesman Ari Fleischer said the size of welfare rolls does not necessarily go up or down because of economic conditions.
"Even in previous recoveries, previous economic booms, the welfare rolls still went up," Fleischer told reporters.
"Only after -- concurrent with the welfare reforms that went into effect in 1996 did the welfare rolls drop as much as they did. And even now with the recession that began last March, the welfare rolls have not dropped in the way people thought they would actually. The number of people on welfare has not increased," Fleischer said.
Bush said the nation's "War on Poverty," launched in the 1960s, did little to reduce poverty among children. From 1965 to 1995, federal and state spending on low income and poor families went from $40 billion to more $350 billion a year, he said.
"During the same 30-year period, we made virtually no progress in reducing child poverty," Bush said.
Since the 1996 law went into effect, he said, welfare caseloads have dropped by more than half, with 5.4 million people fewer than in 1996 living in poverty, including 2.6 million children.
"Many are learning that it is more rewarding to be a responsible citizen than a welfare client. It is better to be a breadwinner, respected by your family," Bush said. "Work is the pathway to independence and self-respect."
But Rep. Sander Levin, D-Michigan, said the average quarterly wage of those moving from welfare to work was only $10,000 a year.
"The challenge is to make work really work for these families, and that means we have to combine people going to work with training, in many cases, so that they can move up the ladder," he said.
Bush, Thompson promote marriage
In making his case for promoting marriage, Bush said the lives of many low-income children living in single-parent households would have been better "if their fathers had lived up to their responsibilities."
Bush called single mothers "heroic" and said they had "the toughest job in our country." Still, he said, statistics show that children from two-parent families are less likely to end up in poverty, to drop out of school, to do drugs or to commit violent crimes.
As part of this family-driven initiative, Bush also said the administration will allocate $135 million to advocate abstinence for America's youth -- a proposal that drew shouts of "amen" from the crowd.
"When our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral. Government should not sell children short," Bush said. "We must promote the good choices."
Earlier, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson defended the president's plan, especially the aspect encouraging marriage, saying critics who say the government has no business in such affairs are off base.
"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," he said.
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.
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