WASHINGTON A coalition of liberals is vowing to fight for changes in federal welfare policy when the landmark overhaul is renewed next year. Kicking off their campaign, they argue that the popular changes aren't working as well as most Americans think.
The newly formed National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, made up of some 1,000 groups, argues that the 1996 welfare law has left the nation with a tattered safety net that will be unable to support needy Americans if the economic slump deepens.
The 1996 law ended the six-decade federal guarantee of cash benefits to the poor, limited welfare to five years and imposed strict work requirements. The results were dramatic: Caseloads fell by nearly 60 percent, as welfare recipients were lured into jobs by the strong economy or pushed off the rolls by tough new rules.
At the same time, poverty rates have not fallen as far as welfare rolls, with many people leaving welfare for jobs that don't pay enough to reach the poverty line.
The new group, which is launching its campaign Wednesday, is looking for a host of changes. Among them: Allowing people on welfare to satisfy work requirements by participating in education or training, stopping the clock on the five-year time limit if someone is working and restoring welfare, food stamp, health and disability benefits to legal immigrants.
Politically, it hopes to be more successful that liberals were in 1996, when President Clinton signed the GOP-drafted bill, said Deepak Bhargava, director of the campaign.
"There was a state of shock that these massive changes were being contemplated and disbelief that they could occur under a Democratic president's watch," he said. "Now people are very clear about the stakes and have mobilized."
Conservatives have a much different agenda for next year's welfare debate. Most of them are happy with the work requirements, but many hope to put a stronger emphasis on marriage and reducing the number of children born to single parents.
The liberal group, with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on hand, is launching its campaign by arguing that many workers who could lose their jobs in an economic downturn will not have access to unemployment insurance, which does not cover many part-time jobs or workers without long job histories.
It released research that suggested the number of people in poverty would increase by more than 3.3 million if the unemployment rate rises by two percentage points.
The group's research also found that more than 120,000 families have had their welfare benefits reduced or eliminated because of welfare time limits, a finding similar to that of an Associated Press survey last summer.
And it found that more than 116,000 poor immigrant families have incomes that are low enough to qualify for welfare or food stamps, but they do not qualify because they came to the country after August 1996, when the welfare law was signed.