Spending on poverty at a standstill

April 10, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

When the General Assembly began this year, the Maryland Alliance for the Poor handed out cookies to remind legislators, "Don't let poverty programs crumble."

Three months later, advocates seem to be in agreement that the cookie didn't crumble, but it has grown decidedly stale.

Appropriations for homeless issues and welfare grants stood still this year -- the first time in more than a decade that welfare grants were not increased.

Advocates for the poor won an important victory when the state pledged for the first time to supplement a federal nutrition program, although the supplement won't start for another year.

The standstill in spending on poverty programs is a reasonable response to the recession, advocates concede. The result, however, is that Maryland is spending about the same amount of money to serve increasing numbers of poor people, advocates say.

"Even in flush years, Maryland didn't meet the needs of the poor," said Lynda Meade of Associated Catholic Charities. "Now it's like playing red light-green light -- come up one step, go back two. . . . And I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel for at least 18 months."

The state made progress this year on other projects that carried no price tag, said Susan P. Leviton of Advocates for Children and Youth. For example, the General Assembly passed laws designed to speed up the adoption process and reform the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile delinquents by eventually turning it over to a private operator.

Advocates say their biggest victory this year was passage of a bill that will put $1 million into the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental feeding program, starting in July 1992.

WIC has been a perennial on the Maryland Food Committee's wish list. The voucher program, which provides coupons for specific food items, is considered one of the most successful preventive programs in the nation. This year, corporations such as IBM testified before Congress in favor of the program, citing the savings that result when pregnant women get proper prenatal care.

But the federal government provides only enough money for about half of those eligible. States have the option of providing additional funds to make WIC available to 100 percent of those eligible. Currently, only 18 states and the District of Columbia provide local funding.

At the same time lawmakers boosted funding for WIC, they eliminated the modest $100,000 allocation for the Statewide Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which helped food pantries and soup kitchens purchase equipment.

The rejection of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposed $800 million tax package and the general resistance to new taxes also disappointed advocates and lobbyists.

"It just seems that every time we talk about kids, it's the wrong time," Leviton said. "We have to stop making excuses."

Here is an overview of how children and the poor fared in the General Assembly session that ended Monday:

* The poor -- Advocates had hoped for a hefty increase in grants for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and General Public Assistance. Instead, they found themselves fighting to keep the programs at 1991 levels.

In March, DHR Secretary Carolyn Colvin announced that the department, in order to meet a budget shortfall, was going to cut grants back to 1990 levels. A letter blaming the cuts on the legislature's refusal to raise taxes was prepared.

Colvin never mailed the letter, and the legislature found the money to prevent the cuts. Advocates saw the threatened cuts as a political ploy similar to ones the Schaefer administration has employed before.

* Homelessness -- Homeless programs suffered no budget cuts this year, but they lost ground because they received no funding increase, said Norma Pinette, executive director of Action for the Homeless, Inc. "The loss is, there were no increases and there is an ever-increasing number of homeless people," she said.

In the final hours of the 90-day session, the legislature passed a $600,000 bond bill that will allow Health Care for the Homeless and People Aiding Travelers and the Homeless (PATH) to purchase a building and combine their services.

* Children -- Lawmakers approved two changes in state adoption laws that should expedite the process for hundreds of children currently in foster care. Under the new law, hearings on the termination of parental rights -- the first step in making a child available for adoption -- must be held within six months of the state's petition.

Language in the state budget states that the Hickey School for juvenile delinquents can move toward finding a private operator to run the troubled school. Advocates hailed that as an important victory.

The capital budget included an allocation of $210,000 for the Baltimore Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents, a facility in northeast Baltimore whose physical plant is barely adequate to serve its emotionally disturbed residents. The money -- described as "a good portion of a half loaf" by RICA staff -- will be used to hire an architect to design the improvements.

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