Many welfare mothers getting smaller check

March 27, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Three months into Maryland's welfare reform project, thousands of women have passively accepted their reduced monthly checks, making little effort to comply with new requirements that their children go to school and visit doctors regularly.

On Jan. 1, the state began reducing welfare checks by $25 per infraction per month when women fail to meet the school and medical requirements. According to surveys, 99 percent of the recipients know about the the new rules. And while most have complied with the regulations, about 10 percent have not, and state officials are stumped. Their confusion points up one problem with the increasingly popular carrot-and-stick approach to welfare: There is no definitive proof that it works.

Consider the preliminary data in Maryland. Since January, about 8,400 welfare mothers receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children have been sanctioned each month.

While the overall number has remained more or less constant as women move on and off the list each month, about half of the women -- some 4,700, -- are habitual offenders.

"We really thought the number would be much smaller," said Kathy Cook, who oversees the program for the Department of Human Resources.

"We do suspect that . . . these are our most troubled families, who may be experiencing more problems in their lives."

Today, in the first attempt to get to the root of the problem, state workers will interview welfare recipients at several clinics.

Later, the department may try "focus groups" -- a technique usually associated with marketing -- to find out why so many have not complied with the regulations.

A homeless woman gave the following account of how she let two of her checks be cut before she complied with the regulations.

She said her 2-year-old son had his checkup in November, but she misplaced the verification form, and didn't get a new one until she had received two reduced checks. She then had to wait another month to get her benefits reinstated.

"I was like, 'Well, I gotta do it,' " said the woman. "I don't have a problem with it, it was my fault. If my check isn't right next month, then I'll complain."

She seemed indifferent to losing the $25 per month, almost 10 percent of her cash benefit. To her, it was just another in a series of wrangles over her check, just another piece of paper in an already paper-intensive bureaucracy.

Punitive programs seem to be increasingly popular, as states contend with the public perception that welfare families are draining resources and forcing tax increases. Maryland is the third state to tie welfare funds to requirements for recipients, and others are quickly lining up.

The public may want punitive measures, said Arloc Sherman, a program associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Children's Defense Fund, but that groundswell is based on "all sorts of false assumptions."

"There is no evidence I know of to support the punitive approach," he said. "Even conservative analysts have reached the conclusion that behavior modification through punishment doesn't work."

Typically, welfare programs are tested in limited trials, then expanded. Maryland's welfare-to-work program, Project Independence, developed this way in the late 1980s.

But this new wave of carrot-and-stick programs is, for the most part, being studied after-the-fact.

Maryland's welfare reform program includes a control group of 5,000 women exempt from the sanctions and who are eligible for nTC annual "bonuses" of $20 if their families receive checkups.

Officials will study the control group to see if that approach works better than sanctions.

In New Jersey, as of Oct. 1, most welfare mothers will not receive additional benefits for any new children they may have. (Some Maryland legislators like this plan, although Gov. William Donald Schaefer opposes it.) But no definitive study has shown that welfare mothers have a higher birth rate than do other women.

And in Wisconsin, which in 1988 pioneered the idea of "Learnfare" -- linking school attendance to welfare benefits -- the state has just started an evaluation process with a control group. Results will not be available for three years.

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