A Case for the 'Family Cap'

February 20, 1994|By CAROLYN W. COLVIN

Recently Connie Tolbert, a former welfare mother, recalled the day in 1990 when she first paid for groceries with her paycheck instead of food stamps. Ms. Tolbert had been off and on welfare for eight years. Unaccustomed to budgeting, she was suddenly stricken with fear that she wouldn't have enough money to feed her four kids and pay the rent.

But those anxious moments in the supermarket checkout lasted only a few minutes. She presented her groceries and paid the bill. And she still had money in the bank.

That moment marked Ms. Tolbert's transition from waiting for her welfare check to arrive in the mail to earning her own way in life. She had a job and profound sense of independence.

Ms. Tolbert has since mastered her household budget, and she is now a strong advocate of welfare reform and Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposed "family cap," which set payments based on the number of children a woman had when she applied for assistance, rather than give automatic increases for more children.

Even opponents of the family cap agree that the present system of welfare promotes an unhealthy dependence on public assistance among poor women.

The family cap is indeed controversial. But it is only one element of a comprehensive package of reforms that ultimately will help more poor women achieve lasting independence and self-respect.

According to state estimates, only 4,000 of the state's, 78,000 mothers receiving public assistance had an additional child while they were on welfare. The reasons poor women have another child are varied and complex. Few women would endure pregnancy and the lifelong commitment of raising a child simply to collect the additional $80 a month benefit the state now provides.

Yet the state presently appears to reward women for having additional children by increasing their monthly welfare benefit. This is an unintended message we cannot afford to send. We expect that the number of women who now have additional children through unplanned pregnancies will decrease significantly once the state sends an unambiguous signal that it will not in any way reward irresponsible behavior.

The state's approach is grounded in the basic concept of fairness and mutual responsibility consistent with the values of all those who work for a living, especially the working poor.

If a working woman has another child, she does not automatically receive a raise from her employer. Why should a mother on welfare be treated any differently? We believe that it's not fair for a mother on welfare to receive additional benefits if she has another baby when her working counterpart does not. It's that simple.

The Governor's Commission on Welfare Policy has been studying these issues carefully for almost a year now. It found that people make the decision to seek work or apply for welfare on economically rational grounds.

Being on welfare has many advantages over working for poor women with children. A minimum-wage job usually does not provide enough income to pay for child care, health insurance, transportation and other expenses associated with working.

Getting people off welfare requires a combination of incentives and support services that will allow them to break the bonds of dependency and stand on their own.

Our goal is to help welfare recipients free themselves from a life situation that is as demoralizing and stigmatizing to the individual human spirit as it is costly and counterproductive for the state. But this cannot be accomplished until the welfare recipient experiences a mental paradigm shift from a state of dependency to that of responsible choice.

In 1990, 1 in 10 births in Maryland were to women less than 20 years old. Teen mothers are much more likely to be single and unemployed, with few economic and educational opportunities.

The vast majority of these young mothers have only two choices: public assistance or unrewarding work. We can do better than this.

The thrust of Governor Schaefer's reform initiative is not intended to punish, but to broaden the choices of women on welfare within a reinvigorated framework of tougher child

support measures, parenting classes, job training and support services. The family cap is just one measure designed to achieve those goals.

Today Ms. Tolbert works for the Department of Human Resources as an income maintenance worker, helping other welfare mothers overcome the hopelessness and lack of purpose she once felt as a dependent of the state. She has gotten her life together and is earning her own way. But she is not unique.

What Ms. Tolbert has done others can accomplish, if we give them the tools and the incentive to make better lives for themselves. That is what welfare reform is all about. It is an attempt to help people help themselves in a way that benefits everyone. This is why I support the governor's initiative and why I believe it offers the best chance for the people of Maryland to really make a difference for those who need it most.

L Carolyn Colvin is secretary of human resources for Maryland.

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