State lawmakers gave preliminary approval to one of the toughest welfare reform bills in the country Tuesday, drawing catcalls from charities expected to pick up the slack if parents and children are cut off the dole.
The bill would deny benefits of any kind to unwed parents 18 and younger. It would also cut off benefits after two years, with some exceptions. And it would deny an increase in benefits if recipients have more kids while they are on welfare.
Legislators also dabbled in a little social engineering by extending benefits by six months if welfare recipients marry.
“Almost like a wedding gift,” said Rep. Suzette Cooke, R-Kent, the bill’s primary sponsor.
“Better than a shotgun,” countered Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, who voted against the bill.
Private charities will help if people still need assistance when they are cut off of welfare, said Rep. Mike Padden, R-Spokane. He was one of seven Republican House members that passed the bill out of the House Child and Family Services Committee on a party-line vote of 7-4.
Only three other states in the country, Florida, Wisconsin, and Indiana, cut welfare recipients off after two years, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The GOP social experiment will face tough opposition in the Democrat-controlled Senate and governor’s mansion.
Cooke claimed her bill will encourage people to help each other, instead of turning to government.
“To the extent government has done the job, people’s interest in getting involved has dropped off,” Cooke said. “The challenge is to reach congregations that believe the New Testament speaks that as Christians they have to act, and not just be philosophers.”
Committee Democrats argued the bill punishes children for the sins of their parents.
They had a little Scripture of their own to quote: All four sported buttons during the hearing that cited verse in the Book of Matthew in which Jesus says whatever help - or harm - individuals do to each other, they also do to Him.
Democrats argued the bill doesn’t take the realities of life into account.
“Last I checked, other than the virgin birth, having children is an act that includes more than just women,” Brown said. “But this bill says nothing about fathers. Or jobs. Or child care.”
The bill, SHB1481, closely parallels GOP proposals to overhaul welfare under consideration in Congress.
The assumption at both the national and state level that private charity will carry the burden if benefits are eliminated was greeted with dry laughter by some in Spokane.
“Nice goal. Not do-able,” said Al Brislain, executive director of the Spokane Food Bank, which helps feed more than 13,000 people each month, more than half of them children.
“This community has been very generous, but the idea that there is some deep pocket out there that can give ad infinitum is not reasonable. The challenge has been just keeping up with the demand we have now.”
Providing occasional emergency service is one thing. Sustaining the needs of families for food, medical care and income for extended periods of time is quite another, said Vic Forni, chief of operations for United Way of Spokane County.
“If people are cut off from benefits, there is no way the private sector can sustain them,” Forni said. “The community has been very supportive, but there’s only so much people can give.”
Cutting teen parents off from benefits is an especially bad idea, said Ken Trent of Volunteers of America’s Crosswalk program in Spokane. The program gives street kids overnight shelter, with the consent of their parents, as well as food, clothing, counseling, and other assistance.
“Teens should not become pregnant. But they do,” Trent said. “If we cut off welfare we will just pay for those pregnancies in other ways like child prostitution, child abuse, increased use of emergency services, and so on.”
He doubted cutting off benefits would reduce teen parentage. “Financial punishment for a basic human need is not a deterrent. Kids don’t get pregnant just to collect a check.”
Cooke countered that providing benefits to teen parents just enables them to live on their own, away from their parents or in foster homes or group homes, where she said they would be better off.
“This bill simply acknowledges their need to be in some kind of family,” Cooke said.
The bill would discourage illegitimacy, Republican lawmakers argued.
“This bill attacks the illegitimacy rate by encouraging personal responsibility and values conducive to it,” Padden said.
Brown argued all the bill will encourage is abortion by poor and desperate women who see few other options.
The bill faces tough sledding.
Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry has argued against welfare reform legislation that cuts off benefits, saying it just punishes kids. In the Senate, where Democrats still hold a onevote majority, a new bill is likely to be proposed as an alternative.
The debate ahead will center on compassion, defined by Democrats as continued government aid for people in need. Republicans see promoting independence and neighbor-to-neighbor assistance as truer forms of kindness.