What's 'Welfare As We Know It'?

August 15, 1993|By ALEX JONES

President Clinton has promised an end to "welfare as we know it." But what does the average person really know about welfare? Many believe they know a lot, based on what they have heard about "somebody's situation."

The truth is most people know very little. For instance, some people think of unemployment benefits as welfare, even though it is an insurance program with the premiums paid by the employer. Others consider food stamps as welfare, even though the program was designed to stimulate sales of U.S. farm products and is funded by the Department of Agriculture.

In order to get a handle on a topic often talked about in very general terms, it may be helpful for us to look more closely at welfare, focusing on what is known officially as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). I hope, as a result of these columns (this Sunday and next), readers will be better informed and can have even more meaningful input when public hearings are held in late summer or early fall on proposed changes to the system.

Who are the people who apply for AFDC in Carroll County?

Fifteen families applied during the week of May 3, 1993. Ten households were headed by a mother with an average of fewer than two children per family. In most of these cases, the father had left his family and had sent little, if any, child support. In what we believe may be a new trend, three households were headed by a father who also had an average of fewer than two children per family. Their mothers had "walked out" on their families and had sent no child support. The remaining two applicant families had both parents living together and had an average of four children per family. Not unlike some of the rest of us, six families had experienced a layoff, a reduction in hours and/or had no unemployment benefits. Two were medically disabled. One was wheelchair-bound. The remaining adults had other reasons for applying. In an attempt to cope, six families had already "doubled up" by moving in with friends or relatives.

In spite of the immediacy of human needs and the apparent validity of these requests, only about half will be accepted. We had to tell one of the applicants that his $2,500 of equity in a car was too much. He had to sell the car and support the family until his liquid assets dropped to $1,000, even though he needed a car to look for a job.

How many people are on AFDC in Carroll County? In February, according to the state Department of Human Resources, 1,712 people (including 1,102 children) were getting a grant. This represents only 1.3 percent of the county's 130,000 citizens, or 0.8 percent of the state's AFDC caseload.

How much do they "make"? The maximum grant is $5.25 a day per person, but the average AFDC grant in Carroll County in February was $3.70 per day, or $25.89 a week per person. If the AFDC client gets food stamps, we can add an average allowance of about $2.39 a day per person. The grand total of the average payment is about $6.09 per person per day or $42.63 a week (almost 40 percent of which must be spent only on food). As for medical needs, Medical Assistance is another program for which we certify eligibility. Most AFDC clients have a medical card which is helpful if the client can find a doctor who will accept the (reduced) M.A. payments.

We have all heard stories how welfare has become a way of life for several generations at the same time. Every agency has some. We estimate that we have less than 6 percent of our 610 adults who meet this description. Put another way, about 94 percent do not.

Have you ever wondered what kinds of external factors keep some people from financial independence? Are people who live in Carroll County less susceptible to these pressures? Why don't we have more stereotypical welfare clients in Carroll County?

First, the concept of the typical welfare client is often an exaggeration.

Second, some stereotypes are more evident where social pathology is the greatest. Carroll County has a higher percentage of intact supportive families, more child support, more people completing their high school educations, less illegitimacy and less excessive drug use or related crime than some other sections of the state. We believe, as does the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, that we have a higher adherence to the work ethic. We also believe that the effective networking of private and public agencies has helped many Carroll County residents keep from getting so destitute as to become eligible for AFDC.

It is easy to point our finger at Baltimore city, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Montgomery or Baltimore counties, because they have 81 percent of the state's AFDC recipients. To do so misses three points:

First, the root causes of financial dependency found nationwide are also here in Carroll County. Second, welfare has attempted to meet the needs of diverse populations, with diverse human needs, in what many people believe is a declining society, through uniform policies, procedures, programs and grant levels. Third, governmental programs alone may have only limited success in changing costly client behavior without holding clients more accountable for their actions.

We believe that the current emphasis on welfare reform should begin with the recognition that the cookie-cutter approach may not be the most effective way to eliminate or reduce the need for welfare.

Alex Jones is director of the Carroll County Department of Social Services. Next Sunday: The lessons and limits of welfare reform.

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