Welfare reform plan is lauded, criticized

February 12, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff writer

The governor's proposed welfare reforms will either end the cycle of poverty or hurt innocent children, depending on who is talking.

The House Appropriations Committee heard both arguments in Annapolis yesterday from people who claim to have the interests of welfare families at heart.

At issue was Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal to impose new limits on welfare benefits in an experimental effort to encourage recipients to be more self-sufficient.

Under his pilot proposal, the state would no longer increase payments to women who, once they start receiving welfare, have more children.

The state also would limit benefits to 18 months. People who could not find find work in that time could keep their welfare checks coming only if they took volunteer jobs. The 18-month limit would apply only in Baltimore, Anne Arundel County and Prince George's County.

Other reforms would encourage two-parent families and require parenting classes for teen-age mothers.

The reforms are meant to be "liberating," not "mean-spirited," said Marion Pines, a member of the Governor's Commission on Welfare Policy.

But others, ranging from liberal advocates for the poor to a conservative anti-abortion group, disagreed. The so-called "family cap" would only hurt children born to welfare mothers, they said.

Legislators themselves seem split on the family cap. Some who support abortion rights say it's unfair for the state to "punish" poor women for having more children while refusing to pay for abortions.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents say they don't like the cap because they fear it may encourage desperate women to have abortions.

With the heightened interest in welfare reform -- several lawmakers have proposals of their own -- it appears likely that some sort of initiative will pass this winter.

"I think a bill is very likely to pass, but I'm not sure about the specific provisions of it," said Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Ms. Pines, of the governor's welfare commission, told the committee that the governor's plan would encourage both government and welfare recipients to treat each other differently. The state would offer child care and parenting classes to welfare mothers, who in turn would promise to look for work and limit their family size. "If you start showing respect for people and create high expectations for them, that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy," Ms. Pines said.

The pilot program would cost the state an additional $1.5 million for 1,000 cases during the first year, although supporters say it could lead to savings in the future.

One supporter, Constance Tolbert of Baltimore, is a former welfare recipient who now works for state government. She told lawmakers that a family cap would encourage women to make more responsible choices. She criticized the current system because it has "almost replaced the father" in welfare families.

Opponents, however, said the family cap is no solution.

"It's the children who are going to suffer in the long run," said Grace Webb of the Legal Aid Bureau, which provides legal services to the poor.

Kevin Appleby of the Maryland Catholic Conference said a cap is not even necessary, since the average welfare family is about the same size as the typical nonwelfare family.

According to state estimates, of the roughly 78,000 mothers on welfare last fiscal year, only about 4,000 gave birth to additional children.

ZTC Carey Garst, legislative coordinator for Maryland Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, said, "The family cap provision would create a very chilling effect on families."

The proposed cap amounts to "a strapping, state inducement for these women to abort their offspring," she said, comparing it to Communist China's repressive population-control policies.

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