Heather Boushey
TomPaine.com, July 10, 2006

Last week, while most of us were preoccupied by what to bring to the Fourth of July barbeque, the Bush administration quietly made a number of rule changes that will make life harder for the poorest among us. The administration claims that the new rules will promote “self-sufficiency,” but it is probably closer to the truth to say that they will make harder for poor, single mothers to balance work and family needs.

The new welfare rules set down by the Department of Health and Human Services last week establish uniform definitions of what constitutes work or work preparation activities for welfare recipients, limiting states’ ability to make these determinations. For example, the new rules require that a welfare recipient who is in school cannot count their study time towards their work requirement unless it is done in a supervised study hall. States have no leeway in interpreting this rule if, for example, the student has small children and needs to study at home at night after the children go to bed.

The administration claims that limiting state flexibility in implementing work requirements will help families become more self-sufficient, but, in reality, their actions work in the opposite direction. To be independent, families need to be able to be able to work and provide care. Denying families access to help when they need it most does not make them self-sufficient, it means they go without.

The new rules follow other changes to federal welfare policy that increased the share of welfare recipients required to participate in work. The Deficit Reduction Act signed into law in February requires that 50 percent of adults on welfare are in work activities, which is higher than in earlier legislation.

The administration's move to limit state flexibility implies that the states have been lax in moving families off welfare. Yet, the truth is that caseloads have fallen dramatically. In 1994, welfare caseloads hit a height of 14.2 million equal to 5.5 percent of the U.S. population. Since then, caseloads have fallen to less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, where where they had been in the late 1960s, before the welfare rights movement.

Many mothers who left welfare found employment and the employment rate of single mothers is now at an historic high. Most who found jobs have a higher income than they had (or would have had) on welfare, but now, the families left on welfare are often the hardest to serve. More often than not, these families need extra help with, for example, getting a high school degree or learning English or coping with a disabled parent or child. The new rules gloss over these barriers to work and mandate a “one size fits all” set of work activities.

It is striking that the Bush administration claims to care about the integrity of the family but cannot see the harsh realities facing families—especially millions of poor families—as they try to balance an inflexible work environment with their families’ need for care. This administration has sought to increase work requirements and touts vapid notions of self-sufficiency, rather than promoting changes that would make balancing work and family easier on poor mothers.

One of the most glaring examples of this has been the administration’s reluctance to pair higher work requirements with significant increases in funding for childcare. Without access to safe and enriching childcare, where are the children of poor working mothers? Welfare policy should help and encourage mothers to be good at both their paid and unpaid jobs.

To date, workers in the United States have no statutory right to paid or unpaid time off when they or their children are sick. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that just about half of service sector workers report having paid sick days. Without the right to paid sick leave, what happens when a working mother’s child gets the flu? Employment policy should help workers be good parents, not stand in their way.

In an Orwellian fashion, the administration refers to the increased work requirements as increasing self-sufficiency and reducing dependency. But a parent who must show up in study hall rather than do her homework with her children around the kitchen table is not less self-sufficient, not more. A parent who cannot take a day off to care for a sick child is not meeting her family’s needs. It’s time this administration stopped talking about self-sufficiency and sits down to look at the actual, rather than imagined, lives of working families and developed policies that—sufficiently—foster a workable balance between work and family.

Heather Boushey is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.