'Make Them Work' May Not Be Answer

August 22, 1993|By ALEX JONES

Legislators have been attempting to deal with poor families since the English Statute of Laborers in 1347. One might think that after 6 1/2 centuries, the problem of poverty would be solved.

Helping someone else to have what is perceived as a "free ride" was not popular when the Elizabethan Poor Laws passed in 1601 and is not popular today. After all, many of us believe that we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and "they" can too, if they want to. It is hard for people to believe that some folks do not have boots, i.e., family/community supports, education, job skills, good health or an ability to function adequately in today's society.

Much has been said about "making people" work for their grant money. Community service sounds so logical and appealing. However, like many other simple solutions to complex problems, it needs considerable thought as indeed our legislature gave it this year as it deliberated the AFDC Community Services Bill (H.B. 1400).

For states to receive federal funds under the Social Security Act, they must submit their state program plans for approval. Any deviations, such as a pilot program, must be approved through a waiver granted by the federal government.

Waivers are approved only if they are "cost neutral" -- i.e., don't cost the federal government any more than expected for the AFDC Entitlement Program. Thus, states have had to pay 100 percent of the funding for new initiatives in a program normally matched by 50 percent by the feds. During recessionary times, only a few states have been willing to foot the whole bill.

Maryland was one of the first states to try something statewide rather than in a pilot county. Our Primary Prevention Initiative (PPI) is an attempt to link clients' behavior to the amount of their grants.

Under this plan, any AFDC family/member who is pregnant receives a special needs allowance of $14 per month for increased nutritional needs of the child, if the mother gets prenatal care.

Families with adult recipients and school-age children who receive annual health check-ups will receive a special needs grant of $20 per person per year.

Families who do not meet the minimum health standards for pre-schoolers will be subject to a $25-a-month per child reduction in grant.

Families with school-age children who attend less than 80 percent of the time (without good cause) will also be subject to a reduction or sanction of $25 per month per child.

Statewide, 40 percent more children are getting more medical care now compared to last year. Ninety percent of the families statewide are in compliance on both issues, and therefore have no sanction. In Carroll County, about 657 families met the requirements and only five are sanctioned.

While it is too soon to predict the long-range benefits, the final results will help policy planners examine the linkage between changes in grant levels and changes in client behavior.

About a dozen other states are also testing ideas in counties and cities.

We are convinced that the only way that significant changes will be made to the existing welfare system is for people such as yourselves to make your concerns and constructive suggestions known to the Governor's Commission on Welfare Policy, which is planning to hold regional public hearings in late summer and early fall.

We would like to see a differential grant/service approach tested. This concept would target limited resources where they may do the most good, based on a standardized but tailored individual or family assessment.

Suppose Sally Smith, aged 20, the mother of two children under the age of three, applied for AFDC. The father is in jail and she has no resources. Miss Smith, after providing the required verifications, will probably be eligible. Since she has two pre-school-aged kids, she will not be required to take job training.

If she went into a pilot program such as we are suggesting, she would be required to complete a risk/needs assessment.

If Miss Smith was functionally illiterate with no work experience, and offered little, if any, potential for change, she would be continued at the current level with periodic reviews and automatic child support collection efforts to offset the AFDC costs to the taxpayers. Her resource level would be the standard level.

If the precipitating reasons for her application were acute (versus chronic) in nature, and she was a literate, relatively high-functioning individual who showed motivation for change, she would be given a higher grant and be allowed a higher resource level as long as she actively participated in developing and carrying out a service plan designed to reduce, and perhaps eliminate, her need for assistance.

If Miss Smith refused to participate, without good cause, her family's grant level would revert to the lowest level or be terminated for herself, with only the children continuing to get limited benefits.

Will this idea cost money to test? Of course. Will the results be certain to reduce the costs of the overall AFDC programs to the public? Will it be cost-effective? We won't know until the pilot has been tried. It has been said, however, that the existing system is the cheapest system money can buy.

Is the cost of doing nothing new acceptable? What do you think?

Alex Jones is director of the Carroll County Department of Social Services.

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