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UNDERWOOD HAS TOUGHENED WELFARE RULES

This is the latest in an occasional series analyzing the issues,

 

records and platforms of the candidates seeking the governorship in the

 

upcoming election. This installment focuses on welfare and the

 

working poor.

 

 

Since Gov. Cecil Underwood took office, the number of people on

 

welfare has dropped more than 70 percent, the governor boasts in

 

his campaign literature.

 

 

What the Republican governor does not say is that the drop was caused

 

by three things, all of which were at work before he took office.

 

 

First, the number of people signing up for welfare was already

 

dropping and had been since 1993. Second, Congress dictated most of the

 

changes in a 1996 law that cut off the majority of West Virginia families

 

during the last four years. Third, former Gov. Gaston Caperton's

 

administration interpreted that law, and prepared a bill for the

 

Legislature before Underwood took office.

 

 

Underwood's administration has zealously carried out those changes,

 

however, even the ones that were tougher than federal law required, that

 

cut assistance to families with disabled members or made it difficult to

 

pursue college degrees or other training. Under his administration, 12,000

 

of the state's poorest children were cut off Medicaid in 1997 and 1998, at

 

least some because the state incorrectly carried out federal

 

welfare law, according to the Children's Defense Fund.

 

 

In April, the federal Health Care Financing Administration sent letters

 

warning states they had cut families and children off Medicaid because of

 

computer errors or inadequate welfare evaluations.

 

 

West Virginia's tougher welfare rules cut about 30,000

 

families off welfare. In August, 11,395 families received

 

welfare checks.

 

 

Because Congress froze West Virginia's welfare budget at old,

 

high-enrollment levels, the state has about $180 million left over in

 

Washington, according to Olivia Golden, assistant secretary for the U.S.

 

Administration for Children and Families. That money is supposed to pay

 

for services to improve the lives of the state's poorest residents, to

 

help them avoid the need for welfare forever.

 

 

Underwood's administration has been slow to spend the money. States

 

that don't spend it are in danger of losing it.

 

 

In one category - child care - Underwood's administration did act.

 

People who go to work won't keep a job for long if they don't have

 

reliable child care, so Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary

 

Joan Ohl transferred $20 million of the state's welfare money to

 

child care during the past three years, according to the U.S.

 

Administration for Children and Families.

 

 

Underwood's campaign materials tout 3,050 child-care slots and more

 

than $2 million in grants to child-care providers.

 

 

The administration has wiped out a waiting list of low-income parents

 

in line for help to pay for child care and raised the rates child-care

 

providers collect.

 

 

By paying child-care providers on time and at the same rate that

 

unsubsidized parents pay, Underwood's administration encouraged day-care

 

centers around the state to take children of low-income families and to

 

expand their businesses to accommodate more families.

 

 

In addition, child-care providers are offered $1 an hour extra per

 

child for certain activities, such as improving care through training or

 

for offering child-care during nontraditional hours.

 

 

Underwood also transferred millions to social services for

 

low-income and troubled families, and increased the amount each family

 

  • till on welfare collects.
  •  

     

    But the state still has millions left over, and Underwood's

     

    administration has been reluctant to spend it.

     

     

    Only this summer - just months before the election - did

     

    Underwood begin to release about $22 million of the money to

     

    various community and religious groups with plans to help unemployed and

     

    underemployed people.

     

     

    Underwood defends his timing.

     

     

    "It takes time to develop these innovative approaches," he said. "It

     

    can't be done at the drop of a hat."

     

     

    He and his opponent Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., are more alike than

     

    different on this issue.

     

     

    Wise voted with Republicans and a majority of Democrats for the 1996

     

    welfare cuts.

     

     

    "I voted for it because I thought the welfare system as it

     

    existed then was broken and we simply had to replace it," Wise said.

     

     

    He voted against earlier versions of the bill that would have cut

     

    people off of Medicaid when they lost their welfare benefits. Wise

     

    has also consistently voted against some of the harshest cuts pushed by

     

    Republicans and some Democrats, including efforts to cut food stamps,

     

    often to children.

     

     

    Although he does not regret his welfare vote, he does not like

     

    the way some of the changes have been carried out, such as the children

     

    who have been dropped from Medicaid.

     

     

    In his economic plan, Wise suggests spending welfare savings on

     

    job training, child care and transportation to help people get jobs and

     

    keep them, the same things Underwood supports.

     

     

    Both candidates also say they support penalties for parents who are

     

    late with child support, the current 60-month lifetime limit on

     

    welfare benefits and work requirements for welfare checks,

     

    according to the Project Vote-Smart survey.

     

     

    Both say welfare recipients should be allowed to save money for

     

    education, starting a business or buying a home while receiving benefits

     

    and the state should give welfare money to faith-based institutions

     

    to help people.

     

     

    Project Vote Smart lists Underwood as opposed to such savings

     

    plans and to giving funds to faith-based institutions, but that is an

     

    error, Underwood said.

     

     

    Novelist Denise Giardina, Mountain Party candidate for governor ,also

     

  • upports the child-care-job-training-transportation ideas like the other
  •  

    two candidates. Unlike them, she also wants to spend some of the

     

    welfare savings to create an earned income tax credit modeled after

     

    the federal version.

     

     

    A tax break at 10 percent of the federal tax credit for low-income

     

    families would return $19 million to the state's poorest workers,

     

    according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

     

     

    Wise says no, because he would not want to risk paying for a tax credit

     

    with welfare money that Congress might cut in a couple of years.

     

     

    Underwood says no and offers his tax plan instead. Under his

     

    plan, families making less than $16,000 a year wouldn't owe any taxes, he

     

  • aid. His plan would not give money to the poorest families as a
  •  

    refundable tax credit would, however.

     

     

    The difference between Wise and Underwood, Wise said, is that

     

    Underwood has no plan for spending the welfare surplus. Wise

     

    criticizes Underwood for waiting until the election was near to

     

    fund transportation and job training community projects.

     

     

    "My sense is, whoever is coming through the door with a proposal is

     

    getting funded," he said. "There are a number of worthwhile projects out

     

    there, but the money ought to be distributed according to a comprehensive

     

    plan."

     

     

    In addition, Wise says he supports tax credits for businesses that

     

    provide child care for employees and for businesses who hire

     

    welfare recipients. Underwood does not.

     

     

    Libertarian candidate Bob Myers blames government spending for the

     

  • umber of people who have trouble finding and keeping a job. The answer is
  •  

    to cut spending, he said.

     

     

    It might take 20 years, he said, but he would eventually get rid of

     

    welfare programs.

     

     

    To contact staff writer Dawn Miller, use e-mail or call 348-5117.

     

     


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