The welfare morass

November 29, 1991

It stretches credibility to believe, as Human Resources Secretary Carolyn Colvin asserts, that the state's plan to revamp the welfare program is not primarily budget-driven. How else to explain the enthusiasm for a radical shift in policy rooted in unproven assumptions? Everyone agrees welfare is a failure when it comes to lifting people out of poverty. The question is whether the state's reform plan can achieve that goal. And the fact is, no one has a clue.

The plan purports to link benefits to responsibility. Welfare would be cut by 30 percent, but recipients could get the money back by proving their children attended school, saw a doctor regularly and that they paid the rent on time. That would ensure poor kids get all the advantages the state can provide, the thinking goes. But while a few states have experimented with creative reform, no major studies have yet shown the effectiveness of incentives and punishment, or what mix of carrot and stick works. And Maryland's proposal is heavy on the stick.

State welfare payments, which already have been sliced to 1989 levels, would drop to as low as $264 a month for a family of three. That base amount would put Maryland at the bottom nationwide in terms of welfare benefits. Certainly people could get most of the money back. But real life may be another thing.

Already cuts in monthly grants have reduced recipients' ability to pay their rent on time. During the first nine months of this year alone, 260,000 suits were filed against tenants for nonpayment of rent in the Baltimore area. How will thousands of poor tenants manage to pay escalating rents on time on further-reduced benefits? Think about a poor mother, who might not even have a telephone, trying to locate the most accessible health care clinic. Think about the single mother of three whose teen-ager gets mixed up with the wrong crowd and skips classes. And, most of all, think about how a cadre of social workers already buried under a mountain of casework can possibly do the enormous amount of paperwork required to document that kids got their measles shots on time.

There are other problems. Those who live in public housing -- including thousands of families in this city alone -- might not meet the criteria that would even allow them a chance to get their grant money restored. And no one knows whether the 6,000 disabled adults who would be cut from General Public Assistance could find work, as the state suggests.

Certainly Maryland could save money with this plan. And certainly it is easy to justify the savings by blaming the poor for their problems. But the goal of social programs should be to provide a safety net for people in distress, particularly in a recession. Making sweeping changes in the system now, while critical questions remain unanswered, is too radical. If the Schaefer administration is genuinely interested in making welfare a vehicle for upward mobility, here's a better idea: Try a pilot program in a small area first, and see if it works.

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