Maryland Plans Welfare Program Based On Forcing 'Client Responsibility'

December 01, 1991|By LAURA LIPPMAN F8 | LAURA LIPPMAN F8,Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

Nationwide, there is nothing quite like Maryland's welfare reform proposal.

There may be a reason for that.

The two-tiered system, bearing the marks of a rush job, was presented last week at a news conference under the banner of "client responsibility." Other states have tried similar approaches, but no state has proposed cutting welfare grants, then reinstating the cut to those who meet what might best be described as a behavior-based means test.

Under Maryland's proposed changes, grants would be cut 30 percent across-the-board. This money then would become available to clients who demonstrate a combination of special needs -- school-age children, preventive health care costs, private housing costs. "Responsibility" means proving that kids are in school, that moms-to-be get prenatal care and that the rent is paid on time.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Maryland program, however, is its ability to unify welfare critics across the political spectrum. Even those who find it philosophically appealing say the plan is inherently flawed.

"If the question is, 'Is it a good idea in general to say that support is conditional on responsible behavior?' -- yes, I think it is," said Charles Murray, author of "Losing Ground," a conservative critique of the welfare system. "But making good on those goals is very tough, and I couldn't quite figure out [Maryland's plan] exactly.

"You have some folks who think these little things can be made to work, but not too many."

Susan P. Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth, Inc., found the plan loathsome from a political standpoint, dubious by any practical measure: "There's no data that says this works. Whenever we want to do something, they tell us we have to do pilot programs to prove that it works. Well, they should have to prove their programs work."

And Mickey Kaus, a senior editor at The New Republic who has written extensively about workfare and welfare reform, dismissed the plan as "tinkering."

"No study I've seen shows that these marginal changes work," Mr. Kaus said. "The way to get people off welfare is to end welfare. They're encouraging mothers to be better welfare mothers." (Mr. Kaus advocates replacing welfare with a system of government-guaranteed jobs at below-market wages.)

These are the new program's specifics, assuming the plan is approved intact by the General Assembly and the federal government:

* Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), rolled back to the 1989 level of $377 for a family of three as of today, would drop to $264, a 30 percent decrease. (AFDC is the major welfare program.) Those who want their money back must prove they are sending their children to school, getting preventive health care and paying rent in a timely fashion.

* General Public Assistance, a state-funded program for disabled adults, would be eliminated and replaced with a system of grants and loans. To receive a grant, an applicant must be disabled for at least 12 months. The standards for loans are more rigid, requiring that an applicant be able to work again at some point. Clients could be required to pay the state any money received through workmen's compensation or liability cases.

* Emergency assistance, $250 grants for those facing eviction or other one-time emergency needs, would be eliminated. Parts of the program, such as burial assistance, may be relegated to new programs within the Department of Human Resources.

The proposal raises far more questions than DHR Secretary Carolyn Colvin could answer last week. How many families and individuals will be affected? How does a client demonstrate responsibility? What happens to the disabled adults who lose their grants?

"The idea of carrots and sticks has been tried before, without much success," said Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, executive director of the Baltimore Mentoring Institute, who once served in Ms. Colvin's post. "You can't reform welfare through the welfare system."

Consider just one facet of the three-part client responsibility test, school attendance. Maryland may want to heed the lessons of "Learnfare," a Wisconsin program that sanctioned welfare recipients when their children did not attend school.

The idea was simple: a school-age child with a pattern of unexcused absences would be removed from a mother's AFDC grant. The reality was a bureaucratic nightmare, in which some women saw their grants cut even when children did not miss school.

The program also proved to be "empowering" -- a favorite social services buzzword -- in an unexpected way. Children suddenly had immense power over their parents.

But the basic flaw, Mr. Murray points out, is that people's intentions cannot be factored into such programs.

"The situations run the gamut from one where the kids aren't in school because the mother is a single mother who doesn't give a damn, to the single mother who cares, but the child is out of control," Mr. Murray said. "That's the full range, and how do you discriminate?"

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