The 1996 law that ended an American's right to welfare also frayed the safety net for some people trying to cope with the current recession.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program that grew out of that law has responded slowly to the increasingly number of people without jobs and descending into poverty, witnesses told the House Budget Committee on Wednesday.
They said that contrasted with sharply increased activity in other safety net programs, including unemployment insurance benefits and food stamps.
LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that while food stamp caseloads rose 19 percent between March 2008 and March 2009, the number of families with children receiving cash aid from TANF was essentially flat in the same period.
Wisconsin's program "has failed to respond to the current recession," said Patricia DeLessio of Legal Action of Wisconsin. She said 269,000 Wisconsin households were getting food stamps in September. As of October, families getting cash aid from TANF totaled 8,600.
The law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 eliminated the right to a welfare check, replacing that with a block grant program designed to promote job preparation, work and marriage. In addition to cash assistance, states use the grants for child care, employment programs and transportation.
It resulted in dramatic reductions in welfare caseloads and a significant increase in mothers moving from welfare to employment.
But Pavetti said the two main functions _ to help low-income parents find jobs and provide a social safety net _ "often are at odds with each other, particularly when unemployment is rising and jobs are hard to find."
'The reality is that it is impossible to have a work-based safety net without work," said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis.
Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution said it would be a "serious mistake" to return to the pre-1996 welfare system where cash was doled out with few strings attached. But he said the program should be adjusted to meet situations where unemployment is up and people can't find jobs.
He added that since 1996 it also "became a badge of honor" for states to reduce their welfare rolls, a frame of mind that could discourage participation.
The Urban Institute says in a report that 42 states have rules, such as job search requirements, that discourage enrollment. An additional 22 states take away benefits the first time a family violates participation rules, such as being late for work.
According to Health and Human Services Department figures, 1.71 million families were receiving TANF funds in March this year, compared to 1.62 million in March 2008.
The $787 billion economic stimulus plan enacted last February included $5 billion to help states replenish TANF resources. The department said it had just hit the $1 billion level for money requested and approved. Under the stimulus act, states are responsible for 20 percent of increased TANF spending.
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