Reforming welfare

February 17, 1994

The Bible reminds us that the poor will always be with us. The same is true of the welfare system, or some version of it.

Current dissatisfaction with subsidies for the poor is great enough that welfare reform is high on the political agenda in Maryland and Washington. But talking about welfare reform is a lot easier than crafting solutions that actually ease the worst aspects of the system, particularly its tendency to encourage a culture of dependence.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal for reforming Maryland's welfare system center on efforts to move recipients into the work force. His plan features a punitive gimmick, a provision that would deny new benefits to recipients who have another baby after enrolling in the welfare program. But he doesn't address the essential companion to any cap on family size -- easing restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion and, especially, improving access to family planning services. Only about 60 percent of Maryland women who qualify for government-funded contraceptive care have access to it.

The governor's dream of putting welfare recipients to work has similar problems. Many people question whether there are enough low-wage jobs available in Maryland to employ significant numbers of welfare recipients. His proposal fails to address how these new jobs will be created.

The Schaefer welfare plan has some disturbing gaps, but one attractive proposal should draw widespread support -- a provision that minors who apply for welfare because they are parents receive aid only if they live with their own parents, unless there was proven abuse or neglect in that household. Teen-aged welfare recipients would also be required to attend parenting classes.

Welfare reform is complicated, but not hopeless. An alternate proposal pending in Annapolis, a pilot welfare-to-work program proposed by Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore, starts with a refreshingly simple idea: stop the revolving-door of welfare. That begins the day a person applies for assistance. Instead of an impersonal, assembly-line application process, she proposes a thorough assessment by a social worker, including counseling about family planning and creating a realistic plan for getting off welfare. Once the recipient leaves the rolls, the plan would provide a transitional safety net -- with continued medical coverage, child care subsidies and the like -- so that work remains more attractive than welfare.

This approach has the great advantage of common sense. It provides clear, realistic expectations for welfare recipients and, best of all, provides the transitional aid they need to meet those goals.

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