Montana’s lone Democrat in the nation’s capitol, Sen. Max Baucus, recently outlined his ideas on the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform bill, proposing increases in childcare and Medicaid funding, and observing that the goal of reform—putting welfare recipients into the workforce—has been achieved, but not without its costs.
“Child poverty is also down, despite the fears of critics,” Baucus noted during a March 12 hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. “However, it’s not down by as much as the welfare rolls are. We’ve learned that getting a job isn’t always a ticket out of poverty. And that points to one issue I’d like to focus on this year—making sure that parents who are working hard to make ends meet don’t have to raise their children in poverty. There are too many families who have left welfare for work and are just barely getting by.”
As chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Baucus will have major influence on the direction of this year’s new welfare bill. However, he faces a tough re-election bid with a widely popular Republican president and a vastly Republican state. Balancing the politics of his party affiliation with those of much of his constituency has become a high-wire act that could cost him his reelection. Any move toward changing the direction of the 1996 welfare reform bill may conflict with Bush and the Republicans, who advocate an even leaner version of aid to the nation’s poor.
Despite the prevailing political climate in Washington, the need for economic aid back at home is hard to deny. Montana consistently ranks in the bottom five states for per-capita income, with a child poverty rate twice the national average.
Kate Kahan of Missoula-based WEEL (Working for Equality and Economic Liberation), who was in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of March for a rally against the president’s proposed changes to welfare, says it will be no easy feat for Baucus to take a stand on welfare in an election year, noting that Baucus opposes Bush’s plan to tie federal dollars to getting single mothers married, supporting instead a more practical approach that includes funding for education and training programs.
“There’s nothing in the president’s proposal about guaranteed minimum wages, or affordable child care,” says Kahan. “Max wants to replicate some of the successful programs we’ve created here in Montana and avoid the sort of workfare that’s crept up in places like New York, where people are essentially performing slave labor to ‘earn’ their welfare benefits.”