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Mr. BAUCUS. Madam President, on July 12, 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS announced a new initiative to allow States to experiment under the temporary assistance for needy families, TANF, block grant. The HHS initiative would waive some Federal requirements for qualifying states and instead allow them to develop and use ``alternative and innovative strategies, policies, and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.'' States would be required to improve employment by 20 percent in order to keep one of these waivers. Some of my colleagues object to this approach.
I was a supporter of 1996 welfare reform and stand by the tenets of that reform. However, it has been seventeen years since that debate on welfare produced the TANF program. We would not expect a car to run for 17 years without maintenance. It is time to tune-up our Nation's antipoverty program. It is time to take a look under the hood.
In the past, TANF has provided crucial benefits to struggling Americans. As poverty rates for women and children increase, it is vital to ensure our programs are adequately meeting the needs of this vulnerable population. The Congressional Research Service estimates that in 1995 over 14 million children were living in poverty. After welfare reform, the number of kids living in poverty decreased to about 11 million by 2000. Since then, these gains have been eroded. There were over 13 million kids in poverty by the start of the recession in 2007. Now there are over 16 million children in desperate need of assistance. These numbers do not indicate a healthy safety net. We must ensure that disadvantaged women and children continue to have access to the vital resources they need.
In 2005, after several attempts to pass a TANF reauthorization bill in ``regular order,'' the TANF program was reauthorized as part of the Deficit Reduction Act. But it was not the comprehensive bipartisan TANF reauthorization voted out of the Finance Committee. Rather, it was a slimmed-down version placed in a budget reconciliation bill that focused on tightening up the work standards and adding grants for marriage promotion and responsible fatherhood. Furthermore, the reauthorization was solely written by Republicans without any Democratic input.
I have nothing but the utmost respect for my distinguished colleague for Utah. I share in my colleague's strong belief that work is honorable and that it should be a cornerstone of our welfare system.
While I certainly share in my colleague from Utah's concern over the unilateral waiver of legislative requirements, I am also a strong supporter of finding ways to improve Federal programs. I agree with the administration that innovation often comes from our partners in the States. As chairman of the Finance Committee, I have provided Montana and the other 49 States numerous opportunities to take initiative and improve our programs. Justice Louis Brandeis said, ``It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.'' Giving the 50 States an opportunity to experiment and improve on Federal programs allows us to determine what works and what doesn't.
Allowing our States to have the flexibility to increase their work rates by 20 percent is a noble goal that improves the very foundation of our welfare system. I understand that there are concerns about how the 20 percent is calculated. However, the goal of increasing employment is my highest priority, a goal that I believe is shared by my friend from Utah.
No matter how noble the goal, I agree that there are better ways to go about making improvements to the TANF program than bypassing the Congress. The Finance Committee has jurisdiction over the TANF program. As a committee, we have never shirked our legislative responsibilities and could have been engaged in a more productive manner.
However, this impasse around TANF waivers has prevented productive dialog on the needs of this Nation's most vulnerable women and children for almost a year. It is time to get back to business. I am willing to work with Senator Hatch to end this impasse. The American people deserve our best attention on getting people jobs that will support their families.
With an eye toward reform, I asked the Government Accountability Office, GAO, to evaluate TANF. Since 1996, the number of families served by federal welfare programs has dropped from 3.9 million to 1.9 million in 2010. The GAO noted that this decline was not due to an increase in income but a decline in participation. GAO noted that States have erected increasingly more stringent barriers, making it difficult for families and children to qualify for TANF.
The GAO also noted that current policies may be discouraging States from preparing difficult-to-serve families for the road back to work through TANF. Some options suggested for serving families with complex needs include adjustments to state requirements and a focus on employment outcomes. We may need to make some modest changes to ensure that the program runs smoothly, our tax dollars are spent efficiently, and that we provide a useful safety net for Americans.
A safety net that encourages and inspires resiliency in the face of hardship is crucial to our growth and success. We have worked together to provide States with the opportunity to find solutions while maintaining rigorous standards in the child welfare programs. Continuing this trend is important, even more so when it involves lifting families out of poverty. We have had a strong bipartisan relationship on the Finance Committee, and I look forward to working with the ranking member to improve our welfare system.
Women should not be faced with the hard choices like staying in abusive relationships in order to provide for their kids or leaving their children with less than trustworthy guardians to find a job. We can do better. Input from the administration, States, and other stakeholders on what they think might improve the program is welcome and needed. I am looking forward to working with my colleague from Utah on a legislative solution that improves the TANF program in real ways for women and children.
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