Reforms based on ignorance

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

December 03, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Somewhere, David Duke is smirking.

The welfare reform package announced last week by the Schaefer administration seems based upon the same ignorance, misperceptions and stereotypes about poor people that almost propelled David, the Crown Duke of Ignorance, into the governorship of Louisiana.

And then, when I hear state officials citing the opinions expressed on radio call-in shows as justification for their policies -- well, the blood chills.

The Schaefer administration last week proposed to crack down on welfare recipients by holding them responsible for paying their rent on time, getting their children to school and seeing that their children receive regular medical check-ups.

Families who don't do these things could have their monthly grant slashed by 30 percent next year.

Meanwhile, Schaefer and company also plan to tighten the eligibility requirements for disabled adults receiving grants under the state's General Public Assistance program, a move that could slash thousands from the welfare rolls.

The whole idea, according to Carolyn W. Colvin, Maryland secretary of human resources, is to reassure the public.

"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," said Colvin.

Added Helen Szablya, Colvin's press secretary, "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. Now at least we'll be able to respond."

And somewhere, David Duke, former grand high exalted muckety-muck of the Ku Klux Klan, is applauding.

Schaefer, of course, is no David Duke. Throughout his political career -- particularly during the economic boom of the 1980s -- Schaefer has shown compassion for the poor.

But the economy has crashed and the bills have come due and the governor finds himself sorely pressed to balance the budget at precisely the time millions more Marylanders are crying out for help.

Schaefer might have chosen to slog through this crises -- paring here, paring there, trying step by painful step to balance the burgeoning needs of the people against the shrinking resources of the state.

But Schaefer always has been an impatient, do-it-now kind of guy and so, his minions have crafted a grand plan to save money under the guise of reform.

Unfortunately, their plan seems based upon all of the usual stereotypes about lazy, irresponsible welfare kings and queens growing fat on the public dole.

The fact is, the typical family on welfare lives a miserable, desperate life, robbing Peter to pay Paul and racing frenziedly to get off of welfare as quickly as possible.

Maryland has estimated that the average family of three needs $502 a month just for the very minimal basics of food, clothing and shelter. But we give them $392 a month and demand that they meet their needs as best they can.

The fact that the average family is able to persevere and escape welfare within two years is testimony to the triumph of the human spirit.

Would threats and penalties help these families get off welfare faster?

I doubt it.

Meanwhile, teachers will testify that the typical poor parent, though unlettered, understands the importance of a good education in helping their children escape from poverty.

Would threats and penalties empower these parents to make better decisions about how to support their children in school?

I doubt that too.

Thoughtful people all agree that there is a desperate and immediate need for welfare reform. There is a need to create programs that hold families together rather than tearing them apart, that put people to work, that empower rather than cripple, that accomplish more for less money.

But Schaefer and his acolytes have chosen to ignore the thoughtful people. They prefer to reassure the yokels who spout off on radio talk shows.

And somewhere, David Duke, the patron saint of the ignorant, claps his hands and cackles with glee, and capers about the room with his jester's bells jingling, because this so-called reform package seems to give him another victory.

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