This is the latest in an occasional series analyzing the issues, records and platforms of the candidates seeking the governorship in theupcoming election. This installment focuses on welfare and the working poor. Since Gov. Cecil Underwood took office, the number of people on welfare has dropped more than 70 percent, the governor boasts in his campaign literature.What the Republican governor does not say is that the drop was caused by three things, all of which were at work before he took office.First, the number of people signing up for welfare was already dropping and had been since 1993. Second, Congress dictated most of the changes in a 1996 law that cut off the majority of West Virginia families during the last four years. Third, former Gov. Gaston Caperton's administration interpreted that law, and prepared a bill for the Legislature before Underwood took office. Underwood's administration has zealously carried out those changes, however, even the ones that were tougher than federal law required, that cut assistance to families with disabled members or made it difficult to pursue college degrees or other training. Under his administration, 12,000 of the state's poorest children were cut off Medicaid in 1997 and 1998, at least some because the state incorrectly carried out federal welfare law, according to the Children's Defense Fund. In April, the federal Health Care Financing Administration sent letters warning states they had cut families and children off Medicaid because of computer errors or inadequate welfare evaluations. West Virginia's tougher welfare rules cut about 30,000 families off welfare. In August, 11,395 families received welfare checks. Because Congress froze West Virginia's welfare budget at old, high-enrollment levels, the state has about $180 million left over in Washington, according to Olivia Golden, assistant secretary for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. That money is supposed to pay for services to improve the lives of the state's poorest residents, to help them avoid the need for welfare forever. Underwood's administration has been slow to spend the money. States that don't spend it are in danger of losing it. In one category - child care - Underwood's administration did act. People who go to work won't keep a job for long if they don't have reliable child care, so Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Joan Ohl transferred $20 million of the state's welfare money to child care during the past three years, according to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. Underwood's campaign materials tout 3,050 child-care slots and more than $2 million in grants to child-care providers. The administration has wiped out a waiting list of low-income parents in line for help to pay for child care and raised the rates child-care providers collect. By paying child-care providers on time and at the same rate that unsubsidized parents pay, Underwood's administration encouraged day-care centers around the state to take children of low-income families and to expand their businesses to accommodate more families. In addition, child-care providers are offered $1 an hour extra per child for certain activities, such as improving care through training or for offering child-care during nontraditional hours. Underwood also transferred millions to social services for low-income and troubled families, and increased the amount each family
till on welfare collects. But the state still has millions left over, and Underwood's administration has been reluctant to spend it. Only this summer - just months before the election - did Underwood begin to release about $22 million of the money to various community and religious groups with plans to help unemployed and underemployed people. Underwood defends his timing. "It takes time to develop these innovative approaches," he said. "It can't be done at the drop of a hat." He and his opponent Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va., are more alike than different on this issue. Wise voted with Republicans and a majority of Democrats for the 1996 welfare cuts. "I voted for it because I thought the welfare system as it existed then was broken and we simply had to replace it," Wise said. He voted against earlier versions of the bill that would have cut people off of Medicaid when they lost their welfare benefits. Wise has also consistently voted against some of the harshest cuts pushed by Republicans and some Democrats, including efforts to cut food stamps, often to children. Although he does not regret his welfare vote, he does not like the way some of the changes have been carried out, such as the children who have been dropped from Medicaid. In his economic plan, Wise suggests spending welfare savings on job training, child care and transportation to help people get jobs and keep them, the same things Underwood supports. Both candidates also say they support penalties for parents who are late with child support, the current 60-month lifetime limit on welfare benefits and work requirements for welfare checks, according to the Project Vote-Smart survey. Both say welfare recipients should be allowed to save money for education, starting a business or buying a home while receiving benefits and the state should give welfare money to faith-based institutions to help people. Project Vote Smart lists Underwood as opposed to such savings plans and to giving funds to faith-based institutions, but that is an error, Underwood said. Novelist Denise Giardina, Mountain Party candidate for governor ,also upports the child-care-job-training-transportation ideas like the other two candidates. Unlike them, she also wants to spend some of the welfare savings to create an earned income tax credit modeled after the federal version. A tax break at 10 percent of the federal tax credit for low-income families would return $19 million to the state's poorest workers, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Wise says no, because he would not want to risk paying for a tax credit with welfare money that Congress might cut in a couple of years. Underwood says no and offers his tax plan instead. Under his plan, families making less than $16,000 a year wouldn't owe any taxes, he aid. His plan would not give money to the poorest families as a refundable tax credit would, however. The difference between Wise and Underwood, Wise said, is that Underwood has no plan for spending the welfare surplus. Wise criticizes Underwood for waiting until the election was near to fund transportation and job training community projects. "My sense is, whoever is coming through the door with a proposal is getting funded," he said. "There are a number of worthwhile projects out there, but the money ought to be distributed according to a comprehensive plan." In addition, Wise says he supports tax credits for businesses that provide child care for employees and for businesses who hire welfare recipients. Underwood does not. Libertarian candidate Bob Myers blames government spending for the umber of people who have trouble finding and keeping a job. The answer is to cut spending, he said. It might take 20 years, he said, but he would eventually get rid of welfare programs. To contact staff writer Dawn Miller, use e-mail or call 348-5117.