From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Faith Groups' Welfare Policy Advocacy Persists-Localizable
"Carol Fouke" <email@example.com>
Thu, 8 Apr 2004 14:06:35 -0400
As Congress Delays, Debates and Delays Again, Faith Community Persists in
Years-Long Struggle for Welfare Policy that Helps Lift Families Out of
Senate's Addition of $6 Billion for Childcare a Victory, But Many Points
Editor's Note: Local and denominational "angles" abound for this story --
contact us (see below) for help. Stories during Congress' April 12-16 home
recess especially would be timely.
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
"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
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
- 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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