At first glance, it looks like a move out of the liberal playbook.
Currently, Washington families who receive public assistance and have a child over the age of one are required to look for work or participate in job training. The state assists these low-income families in paying for child care.
Now Republican lawmakers have proposed delaying that work requirement by a year, which means families could stay home with any child under the age of two and still collect federal welfare benefits.
While saving money for the state. What’s not to like about that?
Sen. John Braun, the GOP’s chief budget writer, is enthusiastic about his proposed changes to the state’s public assistance program. Braun says the state would save an estimated $20 million in projected reductions to its child-care tab, while young children and parents would get another year to grow together.
Not forcing parents to hit the pavement to look for work so they can stay at home with a toddler seems downright touchy-feely. Somebody’s been reading the literature that unequivocally points to the importance of early parent-and-child bonding.
Certainly the various ideas for paid parental leave coming out Olympia this year echo that sentiment.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, calls for employer-paid parental leave for up to eight weeks by 2020 and 12 weeks by 2023. In 2020, employees on leave would receive 50 percent of their average weekly wage, to top out at $595.
Democrat counter proposals would provide 26 weeks of paid leave to be capped at $1,000 a week.
(The city of Seattle recently set a high bar by giving its employees up to 12 weeks of 100-percent paid parental leave, plus up to four weeks of paid leave to care for family members with serious health conditions.)
Republicans including Braun see their proposal for delaying the work requirement as riding this trend, though the impetus seems more focused on the fiscal than the familial.
But the plan is running into a headwind from those who contend parents need to return to the workforce sooner and that delaying training or employment for two years will shorten their employment horizons.
Frank Ordway, an assistant director with the state Department of Early Learning, says the Braun proposal puts low-income parents at a disadvantage. Delaying advancement of skills or training opportunities could have long-term effects on employment outcomes, he says.
Democratic Rep. Ruth Kagi, chair of the House Human Services Committee, seconds those concerns; she says suspending the work requirement for two years would leave parents with only three years to receive an education and find a job before an impending five-year cliff, and that’s not long enough. (Federal welfare reform law adopted under President Bill Clinton in 1996 limits how long families can receive benefits to five years over a lifetime.)
For Republicans, this is a case of can’t win for losing. Even when they throw out a seemingly beneficent cost-saving measure, they are bested by Democrats who think they have a corner on the greater good.
But giving moms and dads the opportunity for another year at home is not the same thing as shackling them to a couch. If a parent decides to work or get training, they could still meet the eligibility requirements for the state’s Working Connections Child Care Program.
The WCCC program is a good fit for many families. Today, for the roughly 52,000 Washington children enrolled, an early start on quality child care could set them up for success later on, including higher graduation rates and lower juvenile crime.
But we won’t second-guess parents who think staying at home an extra year will launch their children on a path to success. Nor will we question legislators who want to give struggling families a way to do it.