Schaefer welfare reform proposes 'family cap'

January 27, 1994|By Laura Lippman and Marina Sarris | Laura Lippman and Marina Sarris,Staff Writers

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has proposed to make Maryland one of the toughest states in the nation in its willingness to limit benefits to welfare mothers.

The centerpiece of his reform package, submitted this week to the General Assembly, is a controversial and relatively untested proposal not to increase payments when a welfare recipient has an additional child.

The so-called "family cap," once vehemently opposed by Mr. Schaefer, is now used only in New Jersey.

Another Schaefer proposal is a variation on "time-limited" welfare -- the approach favored by President Clinton Tuesday night -- in which benefits would end altogether for recipients who refuse to look for a job or do community service. Less than a dozen states currently operate this way.

It is unclear how the Schaefer package will fare in the General Assembly.

Liberals and advocates for the poor long have decried the idea of a family cap, pointing out that welfare mothers do not have more children than other do women: 77 percent of Maryland's welfare recipients have no more than two children. There also is no evidence that punitive actions work, according to studies.

But cap advocates point to its symbolic value: The state, in refusing to increase welfare checks for each new child, is telling welfare recipients they must act responsibly.

The idea also is politically popular. A December poll of 931 Marylanders by the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy showed that almost three-fourths favored reducing welfare benefits to women who continue having children.

New Jersey results

Even some one-time critics are intrigued by the plan, based on New Jersey's early results.

"I was fairly dismissive at first because of the common arguments -- the idea that welfare mothers have lots of babies is not correct, the amount of money withheld is fairly small," said sociologist Charles Murray, who believes the current welfare system should be dismantled. "Then, last fall, they started to bring out the numbers, and the numbers looked fairly impressive."

New Jersey officials, while stressing that their results are tentative, saw a 16 percent drop in births to welfare mothers when they compared the first two months of the program with two months a year earlier. If those results prove to be valid, Mr. Murray said, it may be significant.

Maryland legislators asked about the bill seemed cautious but ready to give it a fair hearing.

Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, a Baltimore City Democrat, faulted the bill for playing to stereotypes, but he expressed support for its goals.

Welfare mothers should be encouraged to delay having more children until they can support them themselves, he said. "The reality is, once they make this decision, the public has to be responsible for it. It is not a decision that is consistent with attempting to eliminate their dependence on the welfare system."

Del. John Astle, a Democrat from Annapolis, said people are frustrated that welfare has become a permanent solution for many poor families. "All of us understand that as citizens we have an obligation to reach down and help people get back on their feet," he said, "but we don't want to adopt them for the rest of their lives."

Third attempt at reform

If passed, the Schaefer package would mark the third attempt at welfare reform by the administration. The first, the Project Independence job-training program, was to have reduced welfare rolls by 10 percent. It went statewide just as the recession hit, and caseloads skyrocketed.

Last year, Maryland began reducing checks if children did not attend school or their mothers failed to get them regular medical check-ups. Most of those sanctioned changed their behavior, but about 3,000 women -- less than 5 percent of the state's welfare households -- did nothing, month in and month out.

The governor's "time-limit" proposal, somewhat similar to the Clinton administration's, would impose an 18-month limit on benefits -- unless a recipient continued to look for a job or did volunteer work. If a recipient refused, it is believed the family could end up losing its entire welfare check, although the bill is not specific.

In recent interviews, the governor has described this proposal as simply an extension of his pro-work philosophy. But the bill's most striking change -- eliminating increases in cash benefits when a woman has additional children -- represents a break with his long-held conviction that such caps penalize children, not their mothers.

Asked recently why he had changed his mind, the governor did not answer directly, saying only: "I think we're trying to send a message that if you can take care of the child at nonpublic expense, fine. If you can't, maybe you shouldn't have that child."

The governor's Commission on Welfare Policy recommended the family cap. But it also recommended that Medicaid funding be made available for all abortions, a proposal the governor did not include in his legislation.

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