A key goal of any welfare program should be enabling recipients to move toward self-sufficiency and a role in mainstream society. A tiny but important step in this direction is Maryland's experiment with the electronic distribution of welfare and food stamp benefits by way of cash cards and automatic teller machines.
The new program, for which Maryland is a national model, will let welfare recipients draw on benefits, child support payments, food stamps and other assistance using a plastic card similar to those used to withdraw money from bank accounts. The cash portion of these stipends would be accessed through teller machines on the MOST system; benefits also could be used to buy food at 150 supermarkets.
The social and administrative benefits of this new distribution mechanism argue powerfully for its implementation nationwide. In addition to tempering the stigma associated with public assistance, it addresses one of the tragic failings of the welfare system -- the millions of dollars in food benefits each year stolen or bartered for guns, drugs and other illicit purchases. It also offers considerable advantages for the state, including lower administrative costs. And retailers who redeem food stamps will be freed from the onerous job of counting and sorting coupons, and from the risk of unknowingly cashing stolen welfare checks.
This is not to brand the new mechanism foolproof. Already, some participants have tried to get around the 18-month-old pilot program in Baltimore: One person sold his card to someone and reported it missing. Another attempted to buy the groceries of a second individual in a checkout line.
Social policy experts, meanwhile, have expressed concern about potential segregation and stigmatization of card users in grocery stores. Another worry -- one we share -- is the notion of forcing welfare recipients, many of whom are unfamiliar with and wary of new technology, into a distribution system that makes them fearful and uncomfortable. Special pains should be taken to accommodate these individuals.
As this computerized distribution system takes hold statewide, other glitches will doubtless become apparent. Nonetheless, the program represents a chance to use advancing technology to make the nation's welfare system more humane and efficient.