Democratic leaders say proposed Republican welfare reform may hamper a pilot program in Utah that has cut assistance rolls by a third. Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt disagrees and said new Democratic proposals may meddle even more.
But Democrats insist their alternatives proposed Friday would help foster more programs like Utah's Single Parent Employment Demonstration (SPED) Program - which they say is a guiding light for their own reform."It seems to me that what the (Democratic) Caucus is working toward is the SPED program," said Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, who joined House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt and others in a press conference unveiling new Democratic plans.
The new Democratic proposal would require welfare recipients to work or be on a clear path to employment; require states to help them find employment; and drop from welfare assistance those who refuse to work.
Orton said Democrats who drafted that were deeply interested in the Utah program - which combines federal money from dozens of programs to help participants obtain what they need to implement a self-sufficiency plant.
That may include child care, job training, transportation, food or anything else - which traditional programs may not offer. Orton said many Democrats were surprised that a conservative, Republican state would offer services they say Democrats usually push elsewhere.
"I think that's what surprised them, and it began to coalesce people into saying: if Utah can do this, we as Democrats - liberal and conservative - can probably come together in agreement of the basic principle (of seeking self-sufficiency)," Orton said.
Gephardt even praised the Utah program as the type of program "aimed at getting people off of welfare and back to work" that Democrats would like to see elsewhere.
Orton said Republican proposals may actually hinder such a program by banning assistance to unwed parents younger than 18 and their children and by limiting benefits to no more than two years.
"You might have a 16- or 17-year-old unwed parent who needs assistance, and if you put them on the SPED program, you can keep them in high school, get them trained, you can get them pointed to self-sufficiency. (The Republicans) say no you can't," Orton said.
"This (Republican proposal) says we're only going to focus on a portion of the population, and we're going to treat the other people as though they don't exist."
Leavitt, however, said the state program would be helped by Republican proposals - which seek to give states maximum flexibility to design their own welfare programs with federal block grants.
"We had to get 46 waivers (to federal welfare rules for SPED) to do what we do now. But we can't even change it to refine it without going through a lengthy waiver process. (With the GOP plan) we could design our own program. It would be an exciting opportunity," he said.
And while Orton, Gephardt and other Democrats blasted Republicans for limiting who they think should receive welfare, Democrats are talking about issuing guidelines that states should include work, child care and other components in their plans.
Leavitt said, "once you have the national government do that, we'll have an endless string of them. Whether liberal or conservative, they are bad. We just want to define our own system according to Utah's priorities."
Gephardt, however, said Republican block grants would give states a lot of money without any direction - and even without requirements for work or job training. He said Democratic plans give more guidance to help ensure people gain work.
Some Democratic leaders even charged that Republican plans are "criminal."
Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., ranking Democrat on the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, said, "Those pushing such inhumane proposals as letting babies starve because they are born out of wedlock to mothers under 18 ought to be incarcerated for life without parole in those additional prisons they are advocating."
Clay added about the GOP, "It's becoming more apparent each day that if their get-tough policies don't work, and they are not likely to, the frustration will increase. What then? Castration and sterilization?"