Welfare reformer says aim is to stem tide of resentment

November 28, 1991|By Eileen Canzian

She had just announced a sweeping plan to impose tough new rules on recipients of Maryland's main welfare program, and a crush of reporters wanted to know why Carolyn Colvin had done it.

"Because it's the right thing to do," the state human resources secretary replied.

Ms. Colvin was referring, in part, to her belief that government ought to be doing everything it can to fight social problems such as homelessness, child neglect and illiteracy. Requiring welfare recipients to pay their rent on time and take their children to the doctor and to school is one way to do that, she said.

But Ms. Colvin also believes her plan to reduce welfare benefits to families who don't meet those requirements is politically necessary to protect the future of a program that now supports nearly 80,000 Maryland families.

The number of people seeking help from Aid to Families with Dependent Children has been rising relentlessly, month after month, since the summer of 1989. Welfare workers say the new applicants are newly jobless men and women who have never before turned to government for help.

The assistance they receive is meager. A family of three gets $406 a month, which will be pared to $377 in December to offset the rising costs. The checks are so small that, even with the burgeoning caseloads, the program costs less than many people think: $342 million this fiscal year, or about 3 percent of the state's budget.

But Ms. Colvin and others in state government are aware of a widely held perception that undeserving sluggards are the primary cause of the state's financial problems. Official descriptions of plummeting state revenues from sales and income taxes apparently can't stand up to the image of the welfare cheat.

"The radio talk shows are full of callers talking about 'those people on welfare' and how they don't even send their kids to school," said Helen Szablya, Ms. Colvin's press secretary. "Now at least we'll be able to respond."

Ms. Colvin clearly is hoping through her proposal, which still needs federal approval, to head off any public clamor to slash funding for a program she sees as critical.

"We've got to send a clear message to the public that in asking them to help care for the poor, we also understand that it is our responsibility to assure that there is client responsibility," Ms. Colvin said. "I think people certainly will be more willing to help if they see that."

Her move has been met with approval even among liberal politicians.

"I support what she's doing," said state Delegate Howard "Pete" Rawlings, D-Baltimore. "I think these programs that depend on taxpayers' dollars must have very broad taxpayer support."

Delegate Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, another Baltimore Democrat, agreed. "The idea is one that makes both substantive sense and strong political sense," he said of Ms. Colvin's plan. "We need to help people to become more independent. And we have a public that is demanding that we do just that."

Mr. Rosenberg himself had suggested to human resources officials last summer that state welfare funds be used to encourage behaviors such as school attendance, but his proposal focused on the use of financial rewards, not punishments. He had suggested giving recipients a bonus on top of their regular monthly check for meeting certain standards, while under Ms. Colvin's proposal, recipients would have to meet the various requirements just to keep the grant they already receive.

"I could see doing this if we were offering people something extra. Buto threaten to cut grants that are already so small is just terrible," said Susan Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth.

An Ohio program being watched closely by welfare researchers combines both approaches. Teen parents can receive an additional $62 each month that they meet school attendance requirements, while those who miss too much school can have their check cut by the same amount.

So far, the Ohio teens are sending a mixed message to the researchers about the program's effect on their behavior: The rewards and the punishments are being handed out in roughly equal numbers.

While Ohio has focused its attention on a single group of welfare recipients, teen parents, Ms. Colvin's proposal would apply to all AFDC recipients statewide. And welfare workers would be asked to monitor not just school attendance, but whether everyone in the family is getting routine medical care and the rent is paid on time.

Because of the state's hiring freeze, many local welfare offices don't have enough workers to meet existing state requirements to review a recipient's eligibility every six months, and Ms. Colvin acknowledges that some of the money saved by cuts in other state programs announced Monday will have to be used to hire additional staff to monitor her new requirements.

Her department also faces the task of writing detailed regulations to carry out the broad goals she outlined on Monday and to assure that clients are protected from bureaucratic mistakes.

"Suppose someone has a clinic appointment but it gets canceled? Suppose the school sends the wrong information?" Ms. Leviton asked.

A school-attendance program in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, encountered just that problem last year. The school records that were used to determine whether people's welfare grants should be cut were so full of errors that a federal judge ordered the program halted until safeguards were established.

Some critics of the kind of social engineering Ms. Colvin is championing point to Wisconsin to illustrate their concerns.

"People really need to think about the issue of government intrusion," said Susan Goering, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, expressing concern about Ms. Colvin's proposals here. "We are talking about Big Brother checking in on the lives of people."

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