'Comply or else' welfare reforms are questioned State planning incentive program

December 15, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith

The Schaefer administration's proposal for making the poor of Maryland live more responsibly or lose up to 30 percent of their welfare money is running into sharp questioning from legislators who endorse the ends but worry about the means.

"There's support for an incentive program as a way to help families and to maintain public support for welfare," said Delegate Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, chairman of House subcommittee on human services, "but there is less support for saying 'Comply or else.' "

Under a plan outlined recently by Carolyn W. Colvin, the state's secretary of human resources, welfare recipients would be asked to document their children's regular attendance at school and family members' regular medical care. A third requirement -- timely payment of rent -- apparently has been dropped as the plan is fine-tuned.

Ideally, Mr. Rosenberg said, the state would offer incentives to people who meet certain standards without threatening their basic grants under Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which now stands at $377 a month for a family of three. That sum would fall to $264 a month, under the Colvin plan, if the family failed to meet the new standards.

With the state budget hemorrhaging, the idea of spending more money on anything has been widely seen as out of the question. But Mr. Rosenberg said he saw the solution in raising taxes.

"This kind of incentive program is as vital as aid to public education or higher education or aid to the subdivisions because we're talking about people who are leading desperate lives. If we can improve the likelihood that they won't stay on welfare, we're benefiting the families -- and preserving public support for the programs," he said.

During a hearing last week in Annapolis, Delegate Rosenberg and others questioned Ms. Colvin closely about how she would make her program work. How would her department know if a child were attending school, for example? Who would decide when a welfare payment was to be denied? Would hearings be held so welfare recipients could argue against the cutoff? Would the program require social services to include an extensive enforcement bureau?

Mr. Rosenberg and other members of his committee were skeptical that the department, with limited and shrinking resources, could run a complicated incentive program effectively and fairly.

"These people are living on the edge, so the benefit of the doubt goes to them," the Baltimore Democrat said. At the same time, he added, "There is the sense everywhere that the welfare system is broke, and you have to fix it." He observed that many other states are developing similar proposals.

Ms. Colvin said her department hopes to have its program in operation by next July but that some of the details have not yet been worked out.

Although department officials have said they hoped to make timely payment of rent a part of the incentive system, Ms. Colvin denied last week that rent payments would be checked. During a news conference where the program was announced, she said the state wants to encourage people to pay their rent first. If there was not enough money left for food, she said, they could turn to private food sources.

"We recognize that grant levels are not adequate," she said. "We're saying that when you have only 'x' number of dollars and that's all you've got, then you've got to set some priorities."

After last week's hearing, however, Ms. Colvin said her department was not equipped to police rental payments, particularly in the private sector.

Mr. Rosenberg said he thought the way the rent issue was dealt with showed a willingness to amend the Colvin program. The poor are so thinly stretched to provide shelter, he said, that basing an incentive program on compliance in that area was not realistic. The rent proposal had drawn some criticism from legislators.

"They are realizing," Mr. Rosenberg said, "that they had made their proposal punitive, and that is not the direction the legislature and the welfare advocates want them to move."

He has heard opposition to the proposal from a number of groups, including the Maryland Alliance For the Poor, the Maryland Food Committee and the Homeless Persons Representation Project, he said.

But the incentive concept in general has considerable support.

Ms. Colvin was asked during last week's hearing if she would consider making grants contingent on a family's control of children who become delinquent.

Ms. Colvin said that requirement had been discussed, but rejected for the time being. Delegate John W. Douglass, D-Baltimore, pressed the point, however, asking her to reconsider.

Delegate Nancy K. Kopp, D-Montgomery, said she finds proposals to curtail another welfare program, General Public Assistance, very troubling.

Ms. Colvin said the so-called GPA program was cut in part because the department worries that some of the screening for eligibility is not as thorough as it might be. Some recipients, she ,, suggested, may not be eligible for the program.

The GPA proposal would limit GPA recipients to those Marylanders with disabilities that are expected to last at least 12 months. Currently, the disability must be of three months' duration for an individual to qualify.

"Where," Ms. Kopp wondered, "will these people go?" She said the GPA program -- for the poorest and the least employable of the poor -- is the ultimate governmental safety net.

She said she thought the legislature would look with great concern on a proposal that essentially shreds this program.

Mr. Rosenberg said he remained confident that arguments for a more realistic incentive program -- one that embraces the goal of responsibility without being punitive -- can be shaped and approved by the legislature if it votes to increase taxes.

5) "I'm finding some sympathy," he said.

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