The title of the study sounds ho-hum enough: "New Lives for Poor Families?" But the results being published this week by researchers at Berkeley, Columbia, Stanford and Yale could cause trouble for Bush's welfare-reform plans. Funded in part by the Department of Health and Human Services since the Clinton Administration, the report charts the effects of 1996 welfare reforms on more than 700 mothers and their young children. The overall picture is bleak. While mothers' earnings rose modestly, many still lived in roach-infested housing, had to skimp on food and spent fewer hours singing and telling stories to their children. One bright spot: toddlers in day-care centers cognitively outpaced their peers in home settings by three months or more.
HHS staff members were less than enthusiastic about the report, according to co-author Bruce Fuller, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. When researchers presented their findings at a tense February meeting, Fuller says, HHS "requested that we delay release by two months." Why all the fuss? The debate over reauthorizing the landmark 1996 Welfare Reform Act is heating up, and the Administration wants to increase the workweek of welfare recipients from 30 hours to 40 hours while holding current child-care funding steady at $4.8 billion. The National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures, seeing sagging state budgets, have critiqued the plan. Bills introduced by Senate and House Democrats would boost child-care subsidies by up to $11.25 billion. The report's child-care findings will not exactly help the White House make its case for cuts.
When asked about child-care funding at a Senate hearing last month, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson cited the nation's budget, pinched by the war on terror. The Administration also points out that it is addressing children's well-being with its pledge of $300 million to promote healthy marriages. Did the Administration try to postpone a report that could be embarrassing? Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at HHS, says that "would have been inappropriate," and he is "chalking it up to misperception." --By Jodie Morse