Bush touts tough new welfare plan as state officials express financial concerns
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — President Bush urged Congress on Friday to stiffen work requirements for welfare recipients — a proposal greeted skeptically by state officials who wondered whether they would be saddled with the plan's price tag.
Even as they warmed up a small crowd of welfare activists for Bush, leaders of Ohio's welfare program and Republican Sen. George Voinovich said they were concerned that the White House plan would increase the cost of child care and other state-run social programs.
"We will need more money to continue these kind of support services," said Judith Stattmiller, director of St. Stephen's Community House. Her program was chosen for Bush's visit because he wants to steer federal money to similar religious community service agencies across the country.
Stattmiller and other community workers expressed support for the president's vision — but concerns about the costs — as Bush met privately with local leaders.
Bush later told the crowd his program would build on the 1996 welfare overhaul bill by helping more recipients find work and dignity.
He urged Congress to "understand the power of work" by implementing his plan when they reauthorize the bill. That measure, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Democratic President Clinton, helped shrink state-run welfare rolls.
The House is scheduled to take up the matter next week.
"If work made a huge difference in people's lives as a result of the 1996 bill, it ought to be a part of the reauthorization," the president said.
The average state has about 30 percent of its welfare cases working; Bush would require states to get to 50 percent immediately and 70 percent by 2007.
"It's not too high a goal if it helps bring dignity into some person's life," Bush said. Aides say the president hopes to ease opposition to the welfare plan by making it part of his broader political strategy to combine conservative policies with initiatives that show the government's compassion.
Bush would allow states to put recipients in education, training and other programs for up to two days a week, or 16 hours. In addition, states could put people into job training or drug rehabilitation full time for three months, once every two years.
When he announced the plan in February, Bush pledged $200 million in federal funds, plus $100 million in matching state funds, for programs aimed at getting low-income couples with children to marry. He also proposed maintaining the five-year ban on benefits for legal immigrants.
He promised the crowd at St. Stephens that Washington will pay for job training for welfare recipients.
"We've got money in the budget to do just that," he said.
Still, state officials said they don't want to foot the bill for Bush's plan, even if it does offer them new flexibility in other areas of welfare reform.
"Ninety percent of what President Bush said, we're jumping for joy over," said Joel Potts, Ohio's welfare policy administrator. "But the one place that everybody is going to be concerned about is how much resources it's going to take — and we'll work through that with Congress."
The state is concerned that Bush's plan requires an additional 10 hours work or training from welfare recipients — up from 30 hours — but doesn't provide more money for child care, Potts said. Parents will need more child care if they have to work more.
Potts works for Republican Gov. Robert Taft, whose re-election campaign received a $1.6 million injection from a fund-raiser headlined by Bush.
At the fund-raiser, the president promised flexibility to state welfare programs. "The best way we can continue with welfare reform is to trust governors and local authorities to match programs and needs with people," Bush said. "In other words, the federal government must get out of the way."
Voinovich, who flew here with Bush aboard Air Force One, acknowledged the concerns of welfare activists.
"I'm not taking a position on this legislation until I hear from you," he told the crowd at St. Stephen's.
In an interview afterward, Voinovich said many in the crowd are concerned that Washington will pass the cost of Bush's program down to cash-strapped states.
"The money will be there," Voinovich said — quickly adding that he wants to make sure he's right before taking a position on the bill.