The Welfare Carrot Is: The State Won't Use the Stick

March 21, 1993|By LAURA LIPPMAN

What's the difference between a carrot and a stick? Well, under Maryland's welfare reform, the carrot is not getting hit with the stick.

Carolyn Colvin, secretary for the Department of Human Resources, takes exception to any suggestion that Maryland's reform plan is punitive. But the rewards in the program are thin, when compared to the punishments -- sanctions that can reduce a typical welfare check by up to 18 percent.

Since the program started in January, more than 9,000 women have lost money for not taking their children to doctors or for not making sure they attend school. That affects 12,000 children, most of them in Baltimore City.

And while some of the women have responded, correcting their behavior, others languish on the list. No one at the Department of Human Resources knows exactly what is keeping these women from making the necessary changes.

Given that the sanctions follow a welfare cut, perhaps the women accept their lower checks with a certain resignation. But one has to wonder if they would respond better if there were additional incentives, beyond a $25 annual bonus for getting check-ups.

Rewards take money, Ms. Colvin has pointed out, and special permission from the federal government. The Clinton administration is expected to be inclined toward providing the latter.

But the welfare debate in Annapolis, under Gov. William Donald Schaefer, has been shaped largely by hostility. You've heard of "eat the rich"? Welcome to "beat the poor."

The governor set the tone in his State-of-the-State address, when he floated the idea that Maryland may consider mandating contraceptives for welfare mothers. Then the ideas just started pouring in.

L Consider these bills, introduced during the current session:

* Fingerprinting public assistance recipients, the better to avoid fraud and double-dippers.

* Del. Richard Rynd, D-Baltimore County, again introduced a bill attempting to control the birth rate of women on welfare. This one has perennial potential, although Governor Schaefer is likely to veto such measures.

* Mandatory community service for welfare mothers, another recycled idea. Interestingly, the governor wanted to do this last year, but the department said it would be too costly to supervise.

* Drug-testing for people on public assistance.

* Finally, there's the proposal to keep out-of-state people from cashing in on Maryland's lavish stipends, by temporarily limiting benefits to the levels in their old states. In California, with one of the highest grant levels in the country, this law makes mean-spirited sense. In Maryland, with an average grant of $359, a person could do much better just by moving to Pennsylvania.

It should be noted that most of the bills stand a slim chance of becoming law. But the thinking behind them grates on those who would like to do better by Maryland's poorest citizens.

"It's a very strange twist," said Linda Eisenberg, executive director of the Maryland Food Committee. "This comes from a mentality that we are taxpayers, rather than citizens. This is going on in state capitals all over the country."

But some states are looking at much more progressive reforms. For example, 11 have introduced measures that allow welfare recipients to work, without seeing their benefits reduced a dollar for every dollar earned.

In New Jersey, eligibility has been redefined so women can marry without losing help automatically. That change helped to soften the blow of a stick -- curtailing benefits for women who continue to have children while on welfare.

Del. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat, has introduced a similar bill here. It is one of a few -- a very few -- "client-friendly" bills in Annapolis this year. Governor Schaefer proposed a 2 percent increase in welfare benefits, and so far the General Assembly has let the raise stand.

Maryland has a chance to change the tone of its welfare debate. The newly formed Welfare Commission, which began meeting last month, is starting with a clean slate. As the governor said, the 20 members may consider anything as they try to reinvent Maryland's system. Mandated Norplant was his example. Members of the commission may have markedly different ideas.

Benjamin R. Civiletti, the commission's chairman, believes in carrots over sticks. That said, he also supports the state's current reform. It is fair, he said, to ask poor women to do what we expect all parents to do -- send children to school, get them proper medical care.

He also thinks much of the recent hostility toward the poor is the product of Maryland's rough economic times. People who are struggling look down the socio-economic ladder and find a convenient scapegoat in the poor. In his generous view, these angry citizens are people who have been misled by myths and stereotypes.

"I don't think it's a sin to be poor," he said in a recent interview. "I think the poor have the same constitutional rights as anyone else. I don't think being poor means that you can or should be denied respect or opportunities or some fundamental rights."

Almost radical words in these days and times.

Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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