In February, Bush administration officials extended their campaign to label low-wage workers as dependent welfare recipients. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt announced plans to eliminate the Child Care Bureau and merge administration of the child care block grant with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Block Grant. In a letter to Congress, Leavitt described the decision as necessary “to improve communication with internal and external customers and better provide technical assistance relative to the block grant programs administered by these two offices.”
Leavitt also reveals the administration’s plan to ensure that the child care block grant is increasingly perceived as just another welfare program: “The enhanced work requirements under the Deficit Reduction Act [AKA, reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Block Grant] will require close coordination between the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs and the child care programs to assure that states are able to move current welfare recipients into employment.”
This is bad news. And it is a reminder of the need to consider carefully our next steps with long-term public perception in mind. During the debate over reauthorization, Bush administration officials argued that child care block grant funding is for “welfare” recipients. If that’s true, then of course, it followed that states would not need additional child care funding to cover the administration’s then-pending increases in work hours and rates for recipients of cash assistance. States could “simply” shift child care help away from working poor who are not getting cash assistance to those who are. Of course, advocates responded that this policy proposal this made no sense since there is no evidence that increasing hours would lead to better employment outcomes, thus states would be forced to punish the working poor in order to cover the child care costs of an unproven plan. The Bush administration officials replied something like this: if you want to have a conversation about child care for the working poor – that’s interesting – but that’s a separate discussion; this child care block grant money is for welfare recipients.
The construct always seemed dangerous – because once again it meant the administration was trying to narrow the public understanding of who is served by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Block and child care block grant funds. The administration pushes the perception that the federal funds are for “welfare” recipients rather than low-wage workers. They push this view despite the shift in use of block grant funds away from cash assistance and into child care for the working poor, despite the fact that most child care assistance goes to low-wage workers who are not getting a welfare check. While we’d hoped that a silver lining of the 1996 law and it’s outcomes might be greater public support for low-wage workers, the administration’s approach could have (the clearly intended) result of undermining public support for child care funding. We find further evidence of this intention in the conservative effort to wipe out the federal law establishing a federal eligibility limit for child care. (I’m forgetting the exact details now; the proposal was included in versions of the House reauthorization legislation.)
This policy change would make it impossible to assess our progress toward covering all those children eligible under the federal standard (income below 85 percent of state median income) and to make cross-state comparisons. (The national number was always very low – 1 in 7 or so eligible kids getting assistance.) This is another example of the conservative effort to obscure the fact that the working poor are struggling in an economy that isn’t working very well for them. Leavitt’s latest move to shift administration of child care is consistent with the conservative campaign against federally funded work supports. If child care funding is not housed in a separate bureau (created by the Clinton administration) but rather lumped in with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families administration – public understanding that child care is for a broad working poor population will be diminished. Child care could become a “welfare” benefit and low-wage workers would be tainted by the negative public perceptions that are associated with welfare receipt. Unfortunately, advocates for the working poor have undermined the child care block grant by linking funding levels to proposed increases in required work hours and rates for cash assistance recipients.
By arguing that Congress had to increase child care funds to cover the proposed increases in work obligations, advocates helped to establish the public perception that child care funding is for welfare recipients. Ironically, as state officials struggle with the need to increase work participation rates among cash assistance recipients, some are considering providing cash assistance as an income supplement to parents who are already low-wage workers. Of course, this assistance would not accomplish the stated goal of conservatives who argued that new work rates are necessary to force states to engage more currently UNEMPLOYED cash assistance recipients. Low-wage workers have long needed some assistance to provide for basic needs of their families. So, the proposals deserve support on the merits. But, there is great risk associated with enhanced income assistance to the working poor funded with the existing block grant, especially if the policy links eligibility to receipt of child care assistance. If state officials assume the only way to meet the rate is to add people who are already low-wage workers to the caseload, they run the risk of labeling these workers as welfare recipients. To avoid this, it will be important to set up the new work assistance with a name and management structure that avoids this perception as much as possible. This challenge runs counter to advocates’ instincts to provide increased funds for “their” issue and officials’ desire to hold the money in state agencies that currently manage “welfare”.
Still, it’s critically important that advocates provide the leadership, political cover, and progressive policy ideas to elected and appointed officials. We must learn from our recent experience – and think about the long term implications of every decision we make today. Always ask: how might conservatives use this proposed policy against us in five or ten years? If we can’t fight our way out of the corner we’ve been trapped in over the past five years now – we are in real trouble. And so are the law-wage working families of today and tomorrow.