THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SECRETARY OF HHS, DONNA SHALALA The Briefing Room
1:25 P.M. EST
SECRETARY SHALALA: Thank you, Laura. We should all pay tuition to listen to Laura Tyson.
Let me say just a few words and then I'll take your questions. Say a few words about the bipartisan welfare working session that will take place tomorrow morning. We have passed out -- and you should have the other details in your packet -- the attendees, including the bipartisan congressional leadership as well as the leadership of the National Governors Association, state legislators and others.
The purpose of the meeting, from the point of view of the President, is to listen and to lead a discussion that will produce interaction, obviously, from these officials. It is in the President's style. This is a man who has dealt with the welfare issue for almost 15 years. There is no President that knows more about welfare than President Clinton. He has a bipartisan history. He was one of the leaders that put together the 1988 Family Support Act. He's probably the only President that's ever sat in a welfare office and spoken to thousands of welfare recipients over the years, both in groups and individually.
We met today with four welfare recipients, the President and I. And I must say, it was -- we may read the literature, talk to welfare recipients over the years, work on welfare reform proposals, but when you sit with welfare recipients, you understand why the system must be changed and must fundamentally change. There is no question that each one of these welfare recipients told the story of a broken welfare system that was of little help in helping them get hand-up to get back into the work force.
Rather than telling you about them individually, let me tell you what they had in common. They all described welfare offices, actually in this metropolitan area, that never asked them what they could do to help them get off welfare; rather, sat there and decided what programs they were eligible for. Each one of them told a harrowing story of searching for training programs, for employment programs that would help them move from their situation. Each one of them told the story of the lack of follow-up on child support, court decisions by state officials. And each one told stories about caring people, once they had gotten into training programs or employment placement programs, that gave them the kind of self-confidence they needed to move on. They were success stories. And there are other stories in this welfare world that aren't as successful. But it -- I think that it told the President and me that we're on the right track, that fundamentally changing the system is what the goal must be.
Let me also say that we're very pleased with the progress that we're making. And the discussion the President will have tomorrow is part of a longer debate and discussion that's taking place. My colleagues and I in the Department of Health and Human Services have finished on the House side with the public hearings that we'll participate in. And it's clear that there is some bipartisan agreement. On moving welfare recipients from welfare to work, on parental responsibility -- holding both parents responsible -- on a major effort that this country must make to eliminate teen pregnancy and on state flexibility. All of these elements are in the bill the President sent up last year. They are all elements one way or another in the bills and in the ideas that the Republicans are now putting forward and debating themselves within their party and with their colleagues in the Democratic Party.
Q Will there be a new administration bill, is that what you're aiming toward coming out of these discussions, or what?
SECRETARY SHALALA: No, actually we do not expect the discussions to end up in specific proposals. We -- the four areas I outlined, welfare to work, parental responsibility and teen pregnancy, state flexibility, the areas where we would discuss and what we're -- what I think the President is trying to see is where the differences are, where the similarities are, and to get a feel for how the discussion is moving along. The discussion actually has shifted dramatically since we started this debate last year.
Q Does that mean that he will continue to stand by and fight for his bill or that he will propose to change it or what?
SECRETARY SHALALA: Well, first of all, he will continue to fight for the principles in his bill; and that is, he will not settle for incremental change in welfare reform. He does believe that we must have a bill that moves people from welfare to work. We must have a bill that holds both parents responsible, that has child support enforcement in it. We must have a bill that has state flexibility. And we have to make an effort to do something about teen pregnancy. He will stick to that.
Q He mentioned the teen pregnancy, a national initiative on it in the State of the Union speech Tuesday night but with no specifics. Can you expand on what he meant?
SECRETARY SHALALA: Just a little bit. We put in our bill last year a federal role in the teen pregnancy effort. And I would be the first one to admit that there is no federal program, no single federal program, no single government program that's going to solve the issue of teen pregnancy. It, in fact, is going to be solved in homes, in neighborhoods, in churches, in synagogues by a true national effort to make it very clear to teenagers to give them options in terms of their future, to make them think about their own behavior.
And part of the initiative that the President was indicating in his State of the Union speech was really challenging the private sector -- business, parents, churches, synagogues, other religious organizations -- to come together to build a truly national effort.
Q What you just said the President wants to fight for is very different than the message he gave in the State of the Union Address. I mean, he wasn't worried about incremental change the other night, he was worried about what he painted as a bill that would be too extremist and too draconian. Is that what you think the Republicans are heading for or do you think now they're heading for incremental changes --
SECRETARY SHALALA: No, the complete opposite of either one. They're not headed for either incremental change or for extremist change. All of us, we believe, are beginning to move on welfare reform and getting closer to the center, which is where the President was in the first place. And by moving to the center, we're all talking about dramatic change. We're all talking about taking the current welfare system and moving it from a system that has incentives that increase dependency to a system that is temporary and transitional, that helps people when they are down on their luck that need the system to get a hand-up to move into the work force.
Q So you no longer think the Republicans then would put children in the street?
SECRETARY SHALALA: No, there are still elements of the Republican plan that would cut off large numbers of children who born to teenage mothers. But let me give you an example of how much movement there's been in the last couple of weeks. The Republican plan, we've been told now, will include child support enforcement. That is a big step from the contract that had very little language on child support. So what I'm trying to say is that there's positive movement here, and we see the President's meeting tomorrow, the discussion tomorrow, as continuing the momentum towards getting a real welfare reform bill out of Congress.
Q Secretary, how important do you think the governors ultimately will be in influencing the political process? And would you say -- it is your perception that a majority now support the Engler block grant approach?
SECRETARY SHALALA: I simply wouldn't comment on any particular approach. I would say that welfare reform has always -- and the welfare system in this country, the safety net system, whether we're talking about food stamps or AFDC, have always been a partnership, a state of federal partnership with, of course, participation by county officials who actually deliver the service in much of this country.
So that is the most important understanding to what's going on now. The governors were critical in the 1988 reform. I'm sure that they will continue to be significant players in this reform. And of course when you have a President that's a governor that sees this issue from the point of view of state and local officials, you can be assured that he listens carefully to his partners in this effort.
Q Secretary Shalala, why is it that last year the President and others in the administration said you couldn't possibly do welfare reform without first doing a massive overhaul of the health care system? What's changed? Was it just the election returns?
SECRETARY SHALALA: We actually have not changed the points that we have made about the need to have a support system. If you had sat in the room with us upstairs with the four welfare recipients, child care is critical. And the bills must have child care. No woman with young children is going to be able to get into the work force without being able to make arrangements for child care. In fact, 63 percent of welfare recipients in this country get off in a couple of years. They often come back into the system. And when you ask them why, it's child care and often health care.
The President asked each of these recipients detailed about their own health care arrangements, all of which reaffirmed what he has been saying about the importance of having some health care in place, particularly for their children. Their concern was about their children, not about themselves.
So when we talk about welfare reform, we talk about the need to have the other pieces there, too. The President indicated in the State of the Union speech that he very much wants to work in a bipartisan way with Congress to continue our discussions particularly to expand programs for working families.
Q So you now say you can do welfare reform without a massive overhaul of the health care system? Is that your position?
SECRETARY SHALALA: We always preferred to do health care, to do a comprehensive reform of the health care system for the repeated reasons. One was that cost containment was critical to us. Second, we believe very strongly that working families in this country ought to have health care and ought to have them available to them; that it's difficult to stand in line at a community health center or to go to an emergency room with a young child when you have an hourly job in which you can't easily get time off for that child.
So we are not backing off from our position that this country and that Congress ought to work with us and work on a bipartisan plan for health care, but we are moving ahead with a welfare bill.
Q What you said today about the campaign against teen pregnancy, it sounds as if the administration believes that there is no federal role in that campaign other than to challenge the private sector. Is that the case, or --
SECRETARY SHALALA: No, in fact we've made a proposal for a federal role in our own bill. And we intend to continue to pursue that. We see ourselves as partners with communities on the issue of teenage pregnancy. No one has ever said that the bully pulpit of the presidency, for instance, is critical in issues of values and morals in this country.
A program like the one that we suggested, which are grants to communities that will help communities organize on the issue of teenage pregnancy, making certain that we work with churches and with synagogues and with other religious leaders in this country to help to strengthen their roles as well as the critical roles of parents. I spent the weekend reading the literature of teenage pregnancy prevention. And what struck me was not only the role of the media in relationship to influencing young people, but particularly the role of siblings. There are sisters and brothers who were slightly older in influencing them.
What the President is saying about teenage pregnancy is that the White House has a role, the federal government has a role, but just as important are everybody else's role to reverse what is an extremely serious situation.
Q The White House during the health care debate never had a meeting like you're going to have tomorrow in terms of a bipartisan session with members of Congress, with governors, with other elected officials. Could you contrast the strategy in dealing with welfare reform versus health care reform?
DR. SHALALA: The answer is that we had numerous meetings with health care reform. All I remember is meetings on health care reform up there. I lived in the Roosevelt Room with legislators, with state and local officials, with Republicans, with Democrats. There is a difference between this strategy and the health care reform strategy, and there should be. They're different politically, they're different substantively. We're building on the first step, which was the 1988 act that Senator Moynihan and thenGovernor Clinton and congressional leaders put together with the NGA and with other officials. So that was the turning point on moving welfare into a transitional welfare-to-work program. We're building on that. And the politics of welfare differs somewhat from the politics of health care.
So we're -- each -- I would argue each major reform effort by this administration requires a strategy that fits in the political culture of the time. And that would cause a considerable difference. But I don't see the difference between this meeting and the numerous meetings that we had on health care.
We certainly are further along in terms of the hearings and having some bills up there. And what we see is an emerging consensus, though there are still significant differences.
Thank you very much.
END1:39 P.M. EST