Rethinking Welfare

CAROLYN W. COLVIN

December 20, 1991|By CAROLYN W. COLVIN

Annapolis. - Since Maryland's Department of Human Resources announced its plans to restructure its Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits, we have received a great deal of ''heat'' from concerned clients, client advocates and the general public. I would like to shed a little light on our plans and intentions.

First: Aid to Families with Dependent Children is just that. Financial benefits, food stamps and medical benefits are provided so that families can take care of their minor children. If those children are to escape the deadening effects of poverty, they need an adequate education. They need to be healthy. They need a secure roof over their heads. Their parents know this as well as we do. By setting aside a portion of their welfare grant specifically to provide for these things, we are making sure that disadvantaged youngsters receive what they are entitled to.

Second: AFDC is, in the old-fashioned phrase, a ''social contract'' between the department and its clients. It is an implied contract, but it involves responsibilities on both sides. For the department it implies that we will be prompt, fair, concerned and compassionate toward our clients' needs. For the recipients it implies that they will fulfill their roles and duties as parents.

The great majority of our clients do this already. They perform what is probably the toughest job in the world, raising a child under very limited circumstances. I have nothing but respect for these dedicated people.

However, many families that turn to AFDC are families in trouble: parents who want to be good parents, but who need help in developing those ''parenting skills.'' The department offers ZTC services to them which can help them learn to do their jobs better. Those services will continue under the new initiatives. By reaching troubled families earlier, we can hope to prevent problems -- not put out brushfires once they have started.

I have been asked: How can you arbitrarily reduce an already inadequate benefit by 30 percent? The answer is: We will not. We assume in advance that our clients will fulfill their part of the implied social contract. At the time of redetermination (approximately six months) we will have data to tell us which families are having difficulties. We will make an intensive effort to educate those clients as to what they must do, as responsible parents, to keep their grants intact.

We will be cooperating with the Maryland Department of Education and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, with the advocacy community and the clients themselves. The health department recently announced the MAC program, under which all Medicaid clients will be asked to choose a primary-care physician -- in effect, a family doctor. This step should make for more convenient, and better, medical care for our clients.

This is vital. Too many infants are born prematurely because their mothers did not seek prenatal care. Too many are born drug- or alcohol-affected. We must work to break that terrible cycle, that waste of young mothers and their children. To do that isn't punitive, it's life and death.

As regards the special-needs allotment for rent: Our concern must be to make sure clients have a stable roof overhead. If a family has a home, then food and clothing and other services can be provided. There is a large disparity between AFDC clients living in public housing (who pay approximately one-third of their income for housing) and those who live in ''commercial'' housing (and may pay up to 90 percent of their income for rent.) We want to narrow that gap.

I have been asked about the unanticipated results of these initiatives. What will happen if, for instance, some parents cannot compel their children to attend school? These are legitimate concerns, and these are the families we will be working with most closely to affect change. Our business is not doling out checks, it is helping families to function.

I have been asked if the new system will be arbitrary, across-the-board, or if it allows for extenuating circumstances. I would reply that the Department of Human Resources is an organization of people, operated for people.

Problems will develop in both the planning and implementation of this restructuring. But that is no reason to give up the effort. We will work with clients, client advocates, non-profit organizations and the whole community to solve problems as they arise. I have invited community leaders, advocates and everyone affected by this restructuring to work with us.

We must begin somewhere. The welfare system is not serving the best interests of anyone: not the public, nor its own clients. By restructuring the AFDC grant toward specific objectives -- health, education, housing -- we are taking a step toward our real goal, helping families achieve independence.

Carolyn W. Colvin is secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

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