House Welfare Hearing Gets Personal for Lawmakers
February 28, 2013 | The Hill | Link to article
A GOP-led hearing called to blast President Obama on his welfare policy softened Thursday as lawmakers shared stories about their childhoods in poverty.
The turn was surprising, given the volatility of the welfare waivers debate, which lit up the presidential election last summer as Republicans accused Obama of "gutting" welfare's work requirement.
On Thursday morning, members of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources hardly mentioned Obama or the waivers policy as they recalled family experiences with government assistance and unemployment.
Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), who led the hearing, spoke of his father's habit of walking to a factory every day and waiting outside with his lunch pail, hoping to be hired, in the 1950s.
"We were on what was called state assistance," Reichert said. "I remember my father really struggling with the idea."
"We stood in food-bank lines," Reichert added. "There was domestic violence in the home, creating a lot of stress."
The remembrance came as lawmakers discussed the range of activities that can help unemployed people stay hopeful and, ultimately, find work. Current welfare law restricts these activities in favor of a work-first approach.
Finishing his story, Reichert said that, eventually, someone came outside and offered his father a job.
"So was [sitting on the curb] an activity that led to employment for him?" Reichert asked. "Maybe."
Republicans have charged Obama with wanting to count activities such as bed rest, journaling and massage as work under welfare reform. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has denied this.
The Obama policy allows states to apply for waivers under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or welfare reform, in order to test new ways to increase employment among welfare recipients.
Sebelius has said states with waivers must move 20 percent more people from welfare to work, or lose the additional flexibility.
On Thursday, some witnesses were skeptical that a strictly work-first approach will lift all welfare recipients out of poverty.
"Employers are increasingly unwilling to just hire folks like your dad," Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, said to Reichert.
"They want people with skills, they want people ready to show up and do the job on the first day. So we need to give people access to those training programs."
Taking his own cue from Reichert, Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) described his family's experiences as "very much the same."
"I have lived in low-income communities all my life," Davis said. "I can recall my father saying he would rather drink muddy water than stand in line for food. That was his expression.
"So this notion somehow that there is vast numbers of people who want to live off public help - I think that is more myth than reality," Davis said.
Prominent House Republicans reintroduced a bill Thursday to block the welfare waivers. Read about it here.