Mitchell backs curb on welfare benefits Bill would cut aid for big families

Schaefer opposed

February 23, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

A radical plan designed to discourage welfare mothers from having more children won a weighty endorsement in Annapolis yesterday.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a Kent County Democrat, encouraged state delegates to approve a bill that would at first limit and then deny extra welfare benefits to women who keep having children. Only New Jersey has a similar plan in place.

Although many legislators want to reform welfare, the idea of using welfare benefits to limit family size and reproductive choices is a highly emotional one.

Supporters say the proposal will encourage welfare mothers to use birth control and enable them to get off the public dole sooner. "It's not designed to hurt anyone," Speaker Mitchell told the House Appropriations Committee yesterday.

Opponents, however, say the bill would punish innocent children because of their parents' actions. The Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women and the Maryland Catholic Conference -- bitter opponents in the abortion referendum last fall -- found themselves on the same side of this issue: against it.

And while Speaker Mitchell came out in support of the measure yesterday, its opponents also have a heavy political hitter on their side: Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"The governor has said that proposals that cut off welfare after a certain number of children have the effect of basically starving a child to punish a parent," said Page W. Boinest, his press secretary. But she said it was too soon to say if the governor would veto the bill if the legislature passed it.

House Bill 834 is aimed at Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a state and federally funded program that serves poor families. More than 220,000 Marylanders currently receive AFDC benefits -- about 4.9 percent of Maryland residents and the highest number since 1981, when welfare eligibility rules were tightened significantly under the Reagan administration.

As the program is currently set up in Maryland, a mother with two children receives $359 a month. If she has a third child, she receives an extra $73 a month.

House Bill 834 would change that.

A mother already on welfare who had one more child would get only half of the extra money she would otherwise receive under current law. And if she had more children after that, the mother would get absolutely no extra funds for them. The state would have to provide her with contraceptives, including Norplant.

"With this bill," said Del. Richard Rynd, its sponsor, "she won't get a pat on the back saying, 'Oh, you had another child? Here's another $90.'

"Although I personally worry about the poor and the sick, families must realize their responsibility for bringing children into this world," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "It's important to deny services to the undeserving and the irresponsible."

If passed, the bill would save $8 million during its first year and more in subsequent years, Delegate Rynd said.

Opponents, however, argued that the bill would not discourage childbearing.

There is "no evidence" that women have children to get welfare benefits, said Timothy W. Griffith of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees welfare programs. In fact, he said, 77 percent of Maryland's AFDC families contain only one or two children.

Kevin Appleby, a spokesman for the Maryland Catholic Conference, called the measure an "attack" on children and families. "It could result in women feeling more pressure to have an abortion or take Norplant," he said. His group opposes both of those birth-control options.

The Maryland Interfaith Legislative Committee, a Baltimore-based coalition of Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims, also opposes the bill. Spokesman Charles Forbes took issue with the idea that welfare mothers who have children are irresponsible.

As a state and a nation, he said, "we welcome babies." Middle-class parents with three or more children are not charged tuition by the public schools their offspring attend, he noted.

"This bill says if you're poor, don't have babies," he said.

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