Dollars and Sense in Welfare Reform

October 15, 1993

Maryland's commission on welfare reform has presented a preliminary report recommending a number of welcome changes in the current system. Some of them, such as suggestions for holding absent fathers accountable for supporting their children, are long overdue. But other changes rest on questionable assumptions.

Most everyone, including recipients, loathes the current system. Yet there is a lack of reliable data about welfare recipients -- who they are, why they need public assistance, how they supplement grants insufficient for minimal needs and what kinds of programs succeed in prodding them toward self-sufficiency. As one observer of the debate said, "We're making social policy for 80,000 Maryland families on less information than I as a parent would demand for any decision affecting my child."

We know a major predictor of welfare dependency is out-of-wedlock births, especially to teen-agers unprepared to support their children. Not only do these girls become dependent on public assistance, but by almost every measure of well-being and achievement their children fall short -- often creating greater burdens on society. Yet the governor's welfare task force ignores teen pregnancy.

The panel's proposals are designed to be "revenue neutral," but providing the support needed to make work attractive -- health benefits, child care and the life -- will be expensive. So will the funds needed to bolster foster care or homeless shelters for recipients who fall short of the reform's demands and become subject to sanctions. Where is the money coming from for all the education and job-training programs implicit in the panel's stress on encouraging recipients to seek employment?

No one can quarrel with the goal of making self-sufficiency more attractive than welfare and making it tough for recipients to stay on welfare. That's what the Clinton administration's working group wants to achieve, too. But the state panel has unanswered questions to address before it can expect the legislature to endorse this plan.

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