President Bush has announced proposals to modify government programs that provide direct assistance to the poor. Mr. Bush says he wants to strengthen the 1996 welfare reform law.
The president says the 1996 law was a good start, but much more needs to be done to help the poor move from dependence on government to self-reliance.
"We are encouraged by the initial results of welfare reform," he said. "But we are not content."
The 1996 welfare reform law dramatically changed the emphasis of U-S government poverty programs. Most aid recipients were told they were expected to work or get job training in order to continue to receive assistance checks.
Mr. Bush wants to strengthen the work requirement. Currently, states are required to make sure 50 percent of all welfare families are working families. The president wants that number to rise to 70 percent over the next five years. He said special efforts will be made to keep teenage mothers in school and train adults with no skills. "At the heart of all these proposals is a single commitment to return an ethic of work to an important place in all American lives," he said.
The president is also proposing more money for programs that promote marriage, so that fewer children live in single-parent households - the families most likely to end up on welfare.
"No doubt about it, single mothers do heroic work," he said. "They have the toughest job in our country. Raising children by themselves is an incredibly hard job. In many cases their lives and their children's lives would be better if their fathers had lived up to their responsibilities."
Mr. Bush is asking Congress for more money for child care. He also wants to enable legal immigrants who have been in the country for at least five years and are not citizens to apply for government subsidies for food purchases. Such subsidies were banned in the 1996 law, although legal immigrants were able to apply for other kinds of aid after five years of residency.
"Those who are eligible and need help, like an elderly immigrant farm worker who has worked hard all his life and cannot help himself, ought to get food stamps," he said. "Or a legal immigrant who has been here for five years and raising a family and all of a sudden gets laid off and needs a helping hand ought to get food stamps."
The president unveiled his welfare proposals during a visit to a Washington D.C. church. The 1996 law is up for renewal this year, and his speech marked the beginning of what is likely to be a long and intense debate in Washington over further welfare reform. Critics say it is not realistic to push the poor to look for work during an economic recession.