This reflects long-held concerns of Bush. When I first took a group of Catholic leaders to Austin in May 1999, the subject that the then-governor got most passionate about was the dilemma of the single mother. One of the Democrats in the room left the meeting saying, “This is a Republican who truly cares about those in need.”
As the president said at St. Luke’s, “Across America, no doubt about it, single mothers do heroic work. They have the toughest job in our country. Raising children by themselves is an incredibly hard job. In many cases, their lives would be better if fathers had lived up to their responsibilities.”
Bush was insistent then, as he is now, that it’s not enough to provide tax breaks — which has already been done — for single parents. Something has to be done to encourage couples to stay married. Thus, $100 million is provided in compensation to states for grant matching programs that support marriage and the family.
He also called for $300 million to be spent on experimental programs encouraging welfare recipients to marry, with about two-thirds of it coming from the federal budget, the remainder from the states. “Stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy,” Bush commented. Another part of this legislation foreshadowed during Bush’s terms as governor is his emphasis on abstinence education. There is a well-known story of Bush attending a state high school football game where he told the football teams in the locker room something to the effect that “if you’re real men, you’ll never bring a baby into the world out of wedlock.”
Bush didn’t, I might add, take this opportunity to suggest “playing it safe” with condoms. He was urging good old self-restraint — and his welfare package does the same by earmarking $135 million to fund abstinence programs nationwide. These programs can encourage the current downward trend of sexual activity among teenagers.
Bush clearly rejects the idea — held by some in Washington, D.C. — that higher numbers of people on welfare means that the government is doing its job helping the needy. The president knows it’s contrary to human dignity to keep a person dependent on welfare assistance when it’s possible for him to work. Welfare reform works. The number of Americans receiving cash aid has fallen 56% since 1996. The number of children living in poverty has reached its lowest level since 1978, according to White House figures that no one disputes.
Consistent with the reforms begun by his predecessor, Bush is asking to strengthen the work requirements for welfare assistance. His plan requires that 50% of welfare recipients in every state work 40 hours a week, up from 30 hours under current law. This requirement would increase to 70% in 2007.
Despite some initial outcry, five Democratic senators — including Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Zell Miller (Georgia) — have already endorsed this legislation. Let’s hope partisan obstructionists keep their distance from this important plan to help families and the needy.