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Promoting Healthier Families to Fight Poverty

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Promoting healthier families to fight poverty
By Congressman Joseph R. Pitts

In 1996, Congress passed historic welfare reform legislation that fundamentally overhauled this failed system, placing work at the centerpiece of the initiative. Many claimed that these measures would drive poor families into the streets and harm the children. The concrete facts show otherwise; changes to the system have strengthened our families, revitalized our workforce, and promoted the American dream.

The results have been astounding. Welfare caseloads have fallen from 14 million to just 5 million today. Over three million children have been lifted out of poverty, and employment of mothers most likely to go on welfare has increased substantially. Poverty rates for African-American children have hit a record low, while the poverty rate among Hispanics has seen its largest decrease in history. The results have truly been remarkable.

But there is still work left to do. We must build on the successes of welfare reform. The House passed H.R. 4, the Welfare Reform Reauthorization Act, on February 13, 2003. But the bill has hit a roadblock in the Senate. As of last week, Senate Democrats continued to filibuster the bill.

H.R. 4 couples increased work requirements by improving access for working parents to reliable childcare. It also offers access to job training and substance abuse treatment if needed.

Most importantly, H.R. 4 strengthens two provisions that will make us more successful in fighting poverty - promoting healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood.

A stable home life is extremely important in setting the stage for a child's future. Studies have shown that stable marriages result in children performing better in school, being more secure financially, and safer at home.

The marriage promotion components of H.R. 4 provide $100 million annually for marriage promotion research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance to the states. It also provides another $100 million for competitive grants to the states, requiring a 50-percent match from state and local entities.

The bill also requires grant applicants to implement plans to deal with issues of domestic violence and how they will ensure that participation in marriage promotion programs is voluntary.

Additionally, H.R. 4 establishes a Responsible Fatherhood program and authorizes the government to spend $75 million annually to promote responsible fatherhood through: marriage promotion, parenting activities, and fostering the economic stability of fathers.

More than 20 million children in this country live without their biological fathers. About 40 percent of these children have not seen their father at all during the past year. Twenty-six percent of absent fathers live in a different state than their children. And fifty percent of children living absent their father have never set foot in their father's home.

However, in low-income communities the cycle of poverty is directly related to the breakdown in the family and particularly the absence of fathers. In the past, federal law actually encouraged the breakup of families or discouraged parents from getting married. In this way, a single mom was forced to rely on a government program, which did not encourage her to work and did not offer her a better way of life. This simply wasn't right.

Government has a vested interest in dealing with the root causes of poverty. Promoting healthy families is one way to do that.

American families don't want a hand out and they don't want a system that only offers a dead end of poverty and dependence. They want a helping hand when it's needed. But, more importantly, they want the chance to rebuild their lives so they can provide a brighter future for themselves and their loved ones, on their own.

H.R. 4 does so in a comprehensive manner by building upon the success of the 1996 reforms.

I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to continue making improvements to the welfare system. By promoting work, strengthening families, and fostering independence, we will fulfill America's promise.

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