Putting the Brakes on Welfare

November 29, 1991

The rationale underlying the Schaefer administration's plan to link welfare benefits to school attendance, medical care and timely rent payments is unassailable. Of course, children should be sent to school. Of course, they should be taken to the doctor regularly. Of course, rent should come off the top of family income. Considerably less certain is how the state plans to bridge the considerable gulf between concept and implementation.

Injecting accountability into the welfare system is the plan's strong point. Children would be assured of a roof over their heads, learn more and be healthier. The state would save millions in health care costs. Incorrigibles would be stripped from the rolls, leaving more aid for the truly deserving. By exposing errant parents, the new rules could serve as a guidepost for social service agencies in removing children from dangerous home situations. For some recipients, responsibility would lead to independence, and ultimately self-sufficiency outside the sphere of public assistance.

That's the theory. Real-life situations are something else. Who among us hasn't at some point been tardy with a rent or mortgage payment? What will be the cut-off date? The first, the fifth, the 15th of the month? What happens to the recipient who pays late because of some uncontrollable emergency? What happens in the case of a missed doctor's appointment or worse, a mistake in documentation? Who will be responsible for keeping score? The agency already is operating under tremendous strain. The last thing it needs is more paperwork.

The state's goal is commendable. But such sweeping change must be approached with a mixture of caution and compassion. Buying into the need for welfare reform shouldn't preclude a sharp examination of its practical impact on families.

Of special concern is how these new rules might affect children. Gov. William Donald Schaefer assures us that kids won't suffer from the actions of their parents. How can we be sure? It's conceivable that frustration and anger about reduced benefits could lead to heightened abuse in already marginally functional families.

Yet the argument for change is compelling. Welfare has become an entitlement program answerable to no one, a program that encourages crippling dependence. That is wrong. It has to be changed. Otherwise, the already fast-fading support for social welfare programs will lead to more radical proposals.

Other states are tinkering with scaled-down versions of what's being proposed in Maryland. The jury is still out on whether incentives or punishment spark behavioral changes. That alone argues against reflexive action. Administration officials have to flesh out their proposal to ensure that it is both flexible and compassionate. This plan will, after all, affect the lives of tens of thousands of impoverished children and families.

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