ANNAPOLIS -- The Schaefer administration announced yesterday plans to lower welfare benefits to the poor to offset increased welfare enrollment and blamed the move on the legislature's refusal to increase taxes.
Carolyn W. Colvin, secretary of the state Department of Human Resources, said the cuts would begin April 1 and affect a total of 98,000 welfare cases statewide.
Specifically, monthly grants in two programs, the General Public Assistance program and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, will be lowered to last year's levels.
In a letter scheduled to be mailed to welfare clients, Ms. Colvin says that the General Assembly's failure to adopt tax increases -- presumably the $800 million Linowes package proposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- caused the reductions.
"The legislature has refused to raise taxes," she notes in the letter. "We hope that the legislature will soon provide the money to increase your grant."
Public assistance benefits poor people who are unable to work for at least 30 days because of some mental or physical disability. AFDC payments go chiefly to single parents who would be unable to support their children without financial aid.
Enrollment in both programs has skyrocketed in recent months, a fallout from the ongoing economic recession and rising unemployment rates.
Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, said Ms. Colvin's accusations were not going to be helpful to her agency and questioned the letter's accuracy since a tax increase in next budget year would have no impact on a fiscal 1991 deficit.
"In some senses, she's correct, but in another sense, the department is not building a lot of friends in the legislature with that type of finger-pointing," Mr. Rawlings said. "Quite frankly, I'm surprised they didn't come to the legislature and talk to us about strategies and instead they chose to condemn us for not raising taxes."
Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman for Secretary Colvin, said the welfare cuts were in lieu of the agency's earlier proposal to cap the public assistance program and require disabilities to last at least six months before benefits kicked in.
The legislature rejected that plan, but the department still needs to make up a $9 million deficit before July 1, she said.
"This only saves us $1.7 million," Ms. Szablya said. "But it affects a broader group of people more generally instead of drastically affecting a smaller group as we had proposed."
The reductions in a monthly grant vary between $4 and $16, depending on a family's size, officials said. They will be offset somewhat because welfare recipients will now qualify for a slight increase in the federal food stamp program.
Nevertheless, advocates for the poor said yesterday that the cuts would hurt families living on the bare minimum and likely cause greater health problems, overcrowding, homelessness and crime.
"When you're living on the edge, there's no way to make this up," said Susan P. Tippett of Associated Catholic Charities in Baltimore. "People on welfare in Maryland get a cash benefit which is less than 50 percent of what they need to live on in decency and health already."