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Church is cool to Wisconsin welfare plan.

Catholic leaders in Wisconsin have expressed strong reservations about some aspects of that state's radical welfare plan, which ends cash payments to children. The "Wisconsin Works" plan replaces Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a requirement that parents work, preferably in the private sector, along with cash grants to supplement workers, pay.

The program provides assistance to employers who provide jobs and makes available cash grants for community service jobs for people unable to get jobs in the private sector.

In return for 40 hours of work or job training, a family, or "work unit," employed outside the public sector would receive a cash grant amounting to 70 to 75 percent of what they would earn if working for minimum wage.

People who are unable to hold steady jobs would be steered into provisional jobs or rehabilitation programs.

The plan, signed into law on April 25 and awaiting federal approval, has been praised for its shift from welfare to work and for its broad support to the working poor. Health and child-care subsidies are offered to all working families in the program. which is expected to cost about $40 million a year, or 13 percent more than current welfare programs.

President Clinton has apparently endorsed the plan, which needs federal welfare guarantess.

Many-child-welfare advocates have opposed the program as undercutting aid to needy children. Critics also cite a five-year limitation on job subsidies. pointing out that people who comply with the program but cannot find unsubsidized work could be let out.

John Heubscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said the plan has merits, but unless amended will worsen conditions for the poor. The conference is the public policy arm of Wisconsin's Catholic bishops.

In a letter to Donna Shalala, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Heubscher criticized the plan for its removal of all entitlements.

"Catholic social teaching holds that the poor, especially children, have a moral claim on the resources of the community needed to secure the necessities of life," he wrote, noting that Aid to Families with Dependent Children has served as the vehicle for honoring that claim.

The policy "replaces an imperfect attempt to help the poor with a calculated decision to abandon them," he wrote. "It is not welfare reform, but welfare repeal."

Huebscher also criticized the program for undervaluing parenting by requiring mothers to work 12 weeks after a child is born and for undervaluing work by providing less than minimum wage for people in community service or transitional jobs.

Noting that opponents of a higher minimum wage describe it as a "training wage" for those who lack jute experience or skills, Heubscher wrote, "It is patently unfair to argue on one hand that a minimum wage need not equal a family wage and then establish an even lower wage for parents of families on public assistance who lack work experience."

A strength of the proposal, Huebscher said, is that it does not discriminate against two-parent families. Currently welfare is weighted toward single parents.

The plan has been in operation as a pilot program in two Wisconsin counties since Jan. 1, 1995, with some success.

For example, Caroline Hanvelt, a divorced mother who had relied at times on food stamps to feed her large family, had always hoped to return to school. She was angry at first when told she'd have to enter the pilot program.

"I'd been out of school for 25 years," she said, "then I realized I could do it and I feel great about it." She went back to school and completed high school requirements. She is now working as a teacher's aide, earning more than $7 an hour at the school where she formerly worked for less money as a custodian.

Her daughter, Kris, who wants to become a certified nursing assistant voluntarily entered the program in order to speed up her training. She noted that day care can cost up to $300 a week, $100 more than the $200-per-child allotment the program provides, especially in children are young. Religious leaders in Wisconsin say many needs not covered by the program will have to be met by churches and charitable groups. Leaders estimate that each of the state's 4,000 Catholic and Protestant churches would have to raise $30,750 a year in supplemental funds.

Although Clinton appeared to endorse the plan, saying he was encouraged by the state's "sweeping welfare reform ... one of the boldest yet attempted in America," Huebscher said he is waiting to learn just what that means. "Our experience in dealing with Clinton is that you look for the fine print," he said. "He gave broad support but stopped short of saying he's going to approve it as is. That leaves the door open to the possibility that he will modify it by not granting some of the federal waivers."

Huebscher's letter strongly urges that waivers be disapproved. "At the very least, a denial of services should be based on a willful failure to comply with program requirements and not the state's unwillingness to provide funds for all who are eligible," he wrote. "Further, the state's denial of assistance must be accompanied by a plan to care for the children affected by a parent's willful failure to comply."

In the letter to Shalala, Huebscher also criticized the program for its "one-size-fits-all approach," in which families receive the same amount of funding regardless of size.

In a telephone interview, Huebscher said, "We are concerned about the impact on the Hmong population," where large families are common. About 43,000 Hmong live in Wisconsin, he said.
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Title Annotation:Catholic Church
Author:Schaeffer, Pamela
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 31, 1996
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