What Do We Ask of Welfare?

SARA ENGRAM

October 24, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

The preliminary report from the Governor's Commission on Welfare Reform raises more questions than it answers. The most important question is also the simplest and most vexing -- Why?

What do we want to accomplish?

Part of the answer is obvious. The safety net for our poorest citizens is inefficient, inadequate, degrading and roundly despised as much by those who depend on it as by those who pay for it. But press beyond the general loathing and you'll discover the reason welfare is such a mess in the first place.

As a society we have a hard time deciding what it is we want from a welfare system, or from reform of the system we now have. Do we want to save money? Do we want to discourage dependency? Do we want to eradicate poverty? Do we want to stigmatize the poor? It's possible to detect all those elements in current debates about welfare reform.

More than anything else, the lack of attention to welfare policy is responsible for the growth of a system far different from the original goal of providing aid chiefly for widows and orphans who have lost their means of support. Today, the primary reason for welfare dependency is out-of-wedlock births to girls and young women unprepared to support a child. Among new, first-time welfare applicants, 60 percent are seeking assistance primarily because they are unmarried parents.

That problem, in turn, contributes to many other woes. These children start out in life with the ominous label ''at risk'' -- at risk of low birth weight and attendant health problems, of abuse or neglect from over-stressed mothers, of failure in school. The list goes on.

Given the resilience of the human spirit, many of these young families grow and thrive, and help from the state enables them to get on their feet. But many more fall victim to the risks they face -- at great cost to the rest of society.

If nothing else is clear about welfare reform, it should be obvious that one way to address the problem is to focus on the conditions that greatly increase the likelihood that a family will end up on welfare. But the commission gives scant attention to teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births and instead focuses largely on job training and incentives to get people off welfare and into the work force.

That's commendable, but the long-range view casts doubt on jobs as the answer to welfare reform. As the Maryland Food Committee and other non-profit organizations have pointed out in a separate report, the jobs available to welfare recipients often fail to pay a living wage. Already, one-third of the people seeking assistance at food pantries and homeless shelters are those we call the ''working poor,'' people who have jobs that do not pay enough to meet basic needs.

Moreover, there simply aren't enough private-sector jobs to accommodate the number of people now on the welfare rolls. According to state projections, it would take more than eight years for those currently on welfare to be absorbed into the state's economy.

If we're determined to expect welfare recipients to work, we're eventually going to have to foot the bill for public-service jobs. But a jobs program won't be cheap, and it will create more bureaucracy for a system already drowning in red tape.

And, again, we face a confusion of purposes. Are we trying to help people by encouraging self-sufficiency? Or are we adding a punitive element to discourage dependency? Without clear goals and adequate resources, any workfare program will inevitably become punitive -- if only because it will create more headaches for everyone who comes into contact with it. And that will only hurt the children we're trying to help.

Requiring welfare recipients to work also presents logistical problems. How do you provide fair compensation without making these jobs more attractive than other jobs? How do you provide day care for the children of welfare recipients without overwhelming the already-tight supply of spaces, inadvertently punishing the working poor?

In reality, the best way to reform welfare may be to focus on other issues like health-care reform, child-support enforcement or raising the minimum wage. Earlier this year, the federal government eased the burden on low-income workers by expanding the earned-income tax credit. One valuable suggestion of the commission's report -- a corresponding expansion of the state's earned-income tax credit -- deserves swift action by the General Assembly.

If the goal of welfare reform is getting recipients into the work force, addressing these issues will do far more than job training programs.

And if the goal is to help to prevent the need for welfare in the first place, the commission needs to head back to the drawing board.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each Sunday.

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