Now that we've 'reformed' health care The next overhaul is welfare

Bruce L. Bortz

June 03, 1993|By Bruce L. Bortz

SHOULD welfare recipients be forced to leave public assistance if they fail to take advantage of job-training opportunities?

Should welfare recipients who work or participate in work training be better off financially than those who don't?

Should husbands be allowed to remain part of their families without disqualifying their wives for welfare?

The General Assembly could answer yes to all three of these questions next spring as part of a major overhaul of the state welfare system. If it does so, it could be the major legacy of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's eight years in Annapolis.

The governor by next January will have received recommendations from his Welfare Policy Commission. The group seems predisposed to favor fundamental change. Many of its members are from business and church groups. They, like the public, want to see the worst abuses of the vast system ended, replaced by a program that genuinely helps the poor while rewarding individual responsibility and initiative.

The current system keeps many of the poor from leaving welfare rolls. It's 60 years old, in extremely poor health and badly in need of an operation.

Will the legislature approve reform? Governor Schaefer will need to buy into the idea that championing an overhaul will be his enduring legacy. Some Schaefer commissions will be long forgotten; their recommendations are on a shelf somewhere in the State House. But if his past behavior is any indication, the governor probably will sign off on commission proposals if they encourage personal responsibility and if they discourage the idea that welfare is a lifetime entitlement.

But the governor, in his last year in office, will need to co-opt legislative and advocacy group leaders for whom change in the current system is a threat. (Ironically, some of these leaders represent the poor.) With them, he can succeed; without them, he will fail.

The advocacy groups for the poor and homeless have tended to concentrate on maintaining the level of welfare payments, protecting them from the several rounds of budget The current system keeps many of the poor from leaving welfare rolls.

cuts as the state has coped with recession. To get them to think of replacing the welfare structure is something else, particularly if a reformed system results in smaller payments to some of their constituents.

If the Legislative Black Caucus resists major reform, for example, the effort could be doomed.

The biggest problem, though, may be money. In the long term, says Carolyn Colvin, secretary of the state Department of Human Resources, welfare reform would save federal and state governments millions of dollars because it would get people off welfare and make them productive, tax-paying citizens. The $1 billion a year the state now spends on welfare for about 350,000 Marylanders would eventually decrease as the welfare cycle was broken for generations of Marylanders. (Welfare today eats up a large chunk -- perhaps 15 percent -- of the state's operating budget.)

In the short run, though, the governments will have to provide bundles of money for housing, medical coverage, child care, job training and education.

Proposals with good intentions tend to fail in Annapolis if they are costly. Will the legislature, in an election year, commit itself to a big spending program, especially one that will span more than one governor's term? If reform in education spending is any indication, we shouldn't be optimistic. From time to time, over several governors' terms, the General Assembly has poured millions of dollars into the poorer subdivisions, but the inequitable state aid formula remains and the gap in spending between rich and poor subdivisions widens.

To make a real run at it, Maryland will need access to Uncle Sam's wallet. In Washington today, welfare reform is way down the list of priorities.

Until health-care reform is sorted out, no other major programs will get a great deal of attention.

But a federal government unable to accomplish national welfare reform could encourage a Maryland experiment, especially since the Free State is conveniently next door and especially, too, because Bill Clinton talked a good deal in his campaign about overhauling welfare.

Welfare reform could be the major issue in the General assembly next session. After enacting health-care reform in 1993, legislators have developed some confidence that they can pull off big things. And going to the voters in 1994 having accomplished health-care reform and welfare reform in successive years could be a plus.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of Maryland Report newsletter. He writes for Other Voices every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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