Welfare goes high-tech

May 16, 1991

The welfare system was designed more than 50 years ago for a different America. To conclude that it isn't working may be the easy part. How to make it run smoother is another matter.

The most imaginative idea comes from a pilot program in Baltimore city which will be expanded statewide by next fall, making Maryland the first state to fundamentally rebuild a benefits delivery system that has been discredited by waste, fraud and abuse.

Under the new system welfare benefits, child support, food stamps and any other assistance will be rolled into one electronic bank account that the government will replenish every month. Recipients will get a bank card instead of a welfare check and a food stamp booklet, so they can withdraw the cash portion of their benefits at automatic teller machines.

In addition, selected supermarkets will be equipped with machines that can deduct the amount of a grocery purchase from participants' accounts, erasing the food stamp stigma. This, undoubtedly, will be the first time many recipients have money in the bank, the first time they have the power to decide how much of their money to spend on food, how much for rent -- giving the recipients of government benefits a chance to experience the dignity that comes with being part of the mainstream.

The new system also promises to cut down on the theft of benefit checks and food stamps, which are too often then sold for cash or exchanged for drugs or illicit services, and to cut down on the administrative costs associated with the traditional system -- some $1.2 million a year all told.

The true test, of course, will be whether the reality of electronic benefits fulfills the expectations. But the need to rebuild the rickety benefits distribution system is so plain, and the new system so logical a response, that the prospects are very good.

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