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 Tuesday, 14 January, 2003, 23:36 GMT
Bush drive on welfare reform
Homelessness is increasing despite reforms

President George W Bush has signalled that he will seek tougher measures to reform welfare.

The president has called on the new Republican-dominated Congress to pass an extension to the law that will require people receiving help from the government to seek work for 40 hours per week or face loss of benefits, a 25% increase from the previous requirements.

He also said that "faith-based welfare", using organistions based in churches, should be a part of his reform programme, in order to offer "help for people's hearts and souls".

In a highly symbolic move, the president invited two black families who had made the transition from welfare to work to join him at the White House for his press conference.

Politics of welfare

Welfare reform was first introduced in 1996, when President Bill Clinton broke with many in his party to back strict limits on the amount of time people could stay on the welfare rolls.

Since then, the number of households on welfare has dropped by more than 50%, from 5.1m to 1.9m.

During the years of the economic boom, many were able to get jobs and raise their living standards.

But now that the economy has slowed down, poverty rates are beginning to rise again.

And the people left on welfare generally have multiple problems, including illiteracy and disability, which makes it harder for them to find jobs.

The House of Representatives, which is dominated by conservative Republicans, is likely to pass the measures, but they face more opposition in the Senate, where some Republican as well as Democratic Senators would like to broaden the childcare provisions of the law.

And the states - who have big fiscal problems of their own - are worried that the tough new terms might lead to extra spending commitments from their already tight budgets.

Shifting to the right

But unlike last time, there is likely to be little opposition to the principle of welfare reform.

According to Professor Theda Skocpol of Harvard University, the big debate over welfare reform is over, and the Democrats are focusing their energies on finding family-friendly policies like the right to family leave.

There is general acceptance that work raises the living standards of the poor, and that tough measures are needed to encourage the poor to change their behaviour.

More controversial will be the attempt to extend the role of the churches in delivering welfare reform.

This will appeal to President Bush's Christian conservatives, but it will offend many who are worried by the the threat to the separation of Church and state that is mandated in the US Constitution.

But is a sign of the president's confidence that, despite his small majorities, he is reaching out to embrace his core constituencies, both with welfare reform and his bold tax-cutting proposals.

And other decisions are looming too - on abortion, and on affirmative action - that will make it clear how far the Republicans hope to reverse the social revolution of the last 30 years.

See also:

30 Jan 02 | Business
17 Oct 00 | Issues
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