Welfare reform: The first steps have been painful


November 17, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Stressing what she called "client responsibility," state Secretary of Human Resources Carolyn W. Colvin a year ago this month laid out one of the nation's more ambitious welfare-reform programs.

Welfare recipients in Maryland would have to send their children to school, and the family would have to get medical checkups, or its checks would be reduced.

Critics called the program unrealistic and unfair. But Ms. Colvin was undeterred, and the changes went into effect July 1, with a six-month grace period for clients to adjust to the new requirements. As of Jan. 1, however, they must provide proof that their children are attending school and receiving medical care.

Those who fail will take a double hit in benefits. The state rolled welfare checks back to 1988 levels as of Nov. 1, an average deduction of $18 monthly. So, even a welfare family meeting the "responsibility test" will have less than it did a year ago.

QUESTION: The revamped welfare system seems to put more emphasis on punishing people than on rewarding them. Why can't you offer more in the way of incentives?

ANSWER: The problem is money. What we're doing was not designed as a cost-containment action, so it doesn't really produce any savings that could be used for those rewards.

In fact, when we started this, we weren't even thinking of welfare reform. We were thinking about supporting what other departments -- Health and Mental Hygiene, Education -- were doing.

Certainly, if -- when -- the economy turns around, we'll be able to do more. And, certainly, the amount of money that we're giving is minimal. It doesn't cover the costs; it's just to emphasize that the FTC state thinks these things are important.

Q.: What about disincentives -- reducing checks monthly for not complying? Do punitive actions change behavior? Isn't the issue of motivation essentially a mystery within social services?

A.: I think it's a mystery. But in every phase of our lives, there are consequences to our actions. More people would speed if they didn't fear getting a ticket; more people would commit crimes if they didn't fear getting caught.

School is free, as is medical care for families on welfare. These are two areas that we believe are extremely important for families. They also are areas that we thought are reasonable because they don't require additional costs on the part of the family.

Q.: Other states have taken disincentives further, refusing to increase welfare checks when additional children are born. Would you support that?

A.: I'm very much opposed to that, and I'll tell you why.

"AFDC" [as the program to help children is commonly referred to] stands for Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Once a child is born, I think we have a responsibility as a state to see that child is at least minimally provided for.

The more appropriate focus to preventing additional pregnancies is emphasizing family planning.

Q.: The idea that women have additional children to get bigger checks is said to be a welfare myth, not unlike Ronald Reagan's stories about food-stamp recipients with Cadillacs, who used their benefits to buy vodka. What are some other myths about welfare clients?

A.: Well, the average family has a mother and two children, for one thing.

An average can be deceptive, and some of our mothers do have more children. But very few have children just to increase their checks.

As for the idea that teen-agers have babies to get welfare checks and gain their independence -- well, many of our teen-age moms are still living at home, counted on their mothers' welfare checks.

L Q.: Are other states doing things you would like to do here?

A.: Oh, yes. Again, it takes money. We have not even begun to address the need to make welfare families self-sufficient. I think the existing system creates dependency on the system.

As an example, for most of our clients, earning extra money while on welfare is a disincentive, because every dollar they earn and report is taken out of their check. But 11 states are now allowing families to earn additional income without being penalized.

I'd like to allow people to earn up to a certain amount and still be on welfare, because that would encourage them to work.

Q.: What about allowing women to marry without losing welfare benefits?

A.: Yes, I'd like to support that. Again, many times a woman will not marry because the program is geared to single-parent families. To qualify for welfare, in almost every case, you have to be a single woman, or one deserted by her husband.

I'd like to see some sort of allocation for stepfathers, at least.

Q.: President-elect Bill Clinton has a long-standing interest in welfare programs. What do you expect from his administration?

A.: He has talked about the idea of time-limiting welfare -- making grants finite, for a period of, say, two years.

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