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WELFARE REFORM CLEARS COMMITTEE

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The debate rages in capitol buildings from Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C.

One view says welfare families are lazy and have chosen to go "on the dole" rather than help themselves.The other says welfare families have fallen on hard times. When they try to better their lives and provide for themselves, they are beaten down by disincentives in welfare programs.

Disparate views are easy to find in the Utah Legislature. Rep. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, says, "We lost the war on poverty, so we're declaring war on the poor."

But it's not a partisan debate.

Rep. Brent Haymond, R-Springville, says he's less interested in placing blame for a welfare system everyone agrees is flawed than he is in finding a cure.

"My feeling is that everyone has a story, no matter who they are. And for us to use gross statements that everybody receiving welfare wants to be there is incorrect. Let's address the situation and not get into a discussion of who's cheating or wants to live off the dole. Let's work on the positive.

"As everyone works on self-sufficiency, the state and (recipients') lives are going to be better. Let's get working toward a solution."

His solution is found in first-substitute HB293, "Employment Assistance for Utah Families." The bill is also sponsored by Rep. Doyle Mortimer, R-Orem, and Rep. Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan. It was approved by the Human Services Standing Committee Friday morning.

Unlike earlier reform proposals, HB293 doesn't discard Utah's pilot program, the Single Parent Employment Demonstration (SPED), which has won acclaim in other states. Haymond sees it as an expansion of SPED. Both are "work-fare" rather than welfare programs.

Jan Hansen, Office of Family Support director, and her staff back the bill. The office administers welfare. Advocates for the poor generally like it. If advocates are less enthusiastic - they're not fond of education limits or time frames - they are relieved. They disliked earlier proposals.

In Haymond's view, HB293 takes SPED statewide but commits it to a certain performance standard. It also states what can and can't be done as part of reform.

In most cases, post-high school education and training are limited to 24 months; a welfare grant is limited to 36 months. Participants must get a job or education and training. Haymond says some will be unable to work and others will need help longer. After 36 months, those employed at least 80 hours a month could continue to receive help. Up to 15 percent of the total caseload can be exempted from time limits as "unemployable."

There's nothing magical about 15 percent, said Shirley Weathers, Welfare Reform Coalition. It is based on the number accepted in federal debates.

Able-bodied people unwilling to participate in self-sufficiency activities will be on their own.

A controversial aspect of the bill requires single parents who are minors to live with parents or adult relatives. The parents' income is used to determine welfare eligibility. If Family Support agrees living at home isn't a good idea for the minor and child, her parents would be required to pay child support. Advocates believe the parents of minor fathers should have to help out.

Legislative fiscal analyst Bryant Howe said only about 80 of Utah's nearly 15,000 welfare households are headed by minors.

HB293 support services include child care (recipients are encouraged to find free child care from relatives and friends) and Medicaid. That worries advocates, who want to make sure children receive quality care.

After training and education, participants will spend at least 32 hours in a workforce re-entry program.

In a news conference Thursday, Davis and Rep. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake, said the welfare system needs to be changed. But they said they're tired of the blame-placing and mean-spiritedness of debate.

"The public needs to be aware of the true facts of welfare," Davis said. "Welfare (SPED) encourages people to work, it does not promote promiscuity and it does not encourage larger families."

Family Support statistics show the average Utah single-parent household with two children earns $15,583. Average welfare assistance in Utah (cash benefits, food stamps and child care) for a family that size is $10,608. Less than 20 percent of welfare families receive housing assistance; when housing costs are considered, the families live in deep poverty.

Davis and Suazo said welfare doesn't encourage families to have more children. In Utah, 72 percent of welfare families have one or two children. Another child raises a welfare grant about $70. "If your employer told you to have another baby, would you do it for $70 a month? I don't think so," Davis said.

And unlike so-called genera-tional dependency on welfare, only 11 percent of recipients are on the rolls for more than five years; more than 65 percent leave within two. But Weathers cautions that while Utah is one of the best states in terms of getting people off welfare, it also has a higher rate returning to welfare.

"The solution is to spend up-front, quality time making families more stable so once they are off, they stay off," she said.

Mortimer, an outspoken critic of the present welfare system, agrees - to a point.

"I think the problem we have is not in providing a hand up, but that it has grown into a handout," he said. "Do I think there are chronic abusers by choice, who stay forever? Yes. Many? No. Are there people who stay on welfare longer than they need to? Yes, because of fear and other things."

The bill, he says, will help people become independent - and exclude people who are unwilling to help themselves.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

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