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States brace for new welfare regulations

/ Source: The Associated Press

No more bed rest, going on errands for a friend or reading the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" to fulfill work requirements for welfare.

The Bush administration will issue new regulations Wednesday that clarify what states can count when it comes to work participation under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program.

Under the law, states are supposed to have at least half of their welfare recipients in approved work activities or face cuts in funding of up to 5 percent. However, states have been on their own in defining those work activities.

Some have gone too far, the administration says.

Congress recently instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to draft regulations that would explicitly define the 12 work categories cited in federal law. For instance, on-the-job training will be defined, as will community service and unsubsidized employment.

In a recent speech, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt signaled that he wanted stricter definitions of work. He questioned Wisconsin's use of bed rest as a work activity. He also questioned other activities, such as motivational reading.

"Needless to say, I think we can all agree we need to have a better definition of what constitutes work," Leavitt told officials at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Definitions vary by state
The Government Accountability Office said last year there were too many differences in how states defined work.

For instance, of 10 states reviewed, five said caring for a disabled family member would meet work participation requirements. Five did not. Six states counted substance abuse treatment as work, but four did not.

Such inconsistent definitions make for unreliable comparisons when determining which states do a good job of helping residents find work, the GAO said.

Commonsense rules
Wade Horn, the HHS assistant secretary who oversees welfare, said in an interview that the regulations will reflect the average American's definition of job training, community service, or any of the other work activities already established in law.

"The average person doesn't believe that bed rest is what they would understand as a job-readiness activity," Horn said. "The danger in not using commonsense definitions for these categories is that the American people start to believe that the government is playing games with them."

But some social services analysts worry that the new approach could stifle innovative programs undertaken by the states. They say such approaches have helped reduce the welfare rolls by 57 percent over the past decade.

"Every state's economy is different and states are dealing with different challenges among the welfare recipients that remain on the caseload," said Sheri Steisel, director of human services policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Steisel said there can be logical explanations for some activities the administration has ridiculed. Consider the administration's example of bed rest, she said.

"If a woman is in her ninth month of pregnancy, some states, for example, used bed rest as a way of making sure the recipient didn't lose their welfare assistance while they were either out ill or on bed rest, similar to the real work world where sometimes women have to go on leave prior to the birth of a child," Steisel said.

Changes approved to the nation's welfare program in 1996 set limits on how long people could obtain cash assistance. Since the law went into effect, the welfare rolls have dropped from about 4.4 million families to under 2 million.