An Accidental Coalition Lines Up for Welfare Reform

April 06, 1994|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

During these waning days of a mostly slide-by session, murmurs fill the halls of Annapolis: The governor's welfare-reform bill, it is said, dares too little. Its ''no more money for more kids'' centerpiece, it is said, is mere election-year gimmickry.

On the contrary, the governor's bill is that oddity of Annapolis life -- a good marriage of sound policy and smart politics. If it passes as is -- and that's still a big ''if'' -- the legislature will have turned an attitudinal corner of critical importance.

This was the Schaefer administration's third attempt to reform welfare. The first created a small, expensive program, Project Independence, to train welfare recipients for a world of work. It produced some illustrious individual successes, but there wasn't enough money to convert the pilot into system-wide changes.

Attempt No. 2 imposed money sanctions on welfare parents not getting their kids to medical check-ups. Over objections that children should not be punished for parental failures, the plan received federal approval.

Reform efforts stalled last year, when Del. Richard Rynd, D-Baltimore County, proposed that welfare parents receive half the normal grant for the first child born after going on public assistance, and nothing for any further births. Objecting that the proposal was ''punitive'' and ''insensitive,'' Governor Schaefer proposed a gubernatorial commission to study the entire welfare question. That got the Rynd bill sealed up in committee.

Last October, the 20-member panel, headed by former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, voted 11-4 to recommend a cap to Mr. Schaefer. Commission member Marion Pines, together with longtime Schaefer staffer Daryl Plevy, brought the the governor around by arguing that the state must show respect for welfare recipients, and perhaps the best way to do that is to create high expectations for them. Even the poor have no unconditional and permanent right to income maintenance, they apparently told him: Welfare needs to be more than a system of getting the checks out on time.

The governor's new bill included the commission's cap, which means no benefits for children born after the new policy took effect. His Family Investment System bill also calls for ''time-limited welfare.'' Welfare recipients would lose their grants within two years of coming into the system, they didn't seek jobs or training, or do community service.

Legislative debate has focused on three fronts. Some religious groups said the cap would be unfair to children, whose biggest problem -- poverty -- is only compounded by withholding a welfare grant.

Abortion-rights advocates insisted that if welfare mothers were to be sanctioned for having children, the state ought to make all manner of family planning reasonably available. That would include following another Civiletti Commission recommendation: amending Maryland's Medicaid law so that poor women wanting abortions can have them, for any legal reason, at state expense. Limiting access to abortion, the advocates argued, would increase the number of live births, and the consequent expense to the state.

Finally, some legislators sought a safety net for hardship recipients unable to work or get schooling. They won $1.5 million to allow social workers to assess these ''no longer eligibles'' and manage their ''waived-in'' cases.

Carolyn Colvin, head of the Department of Human Resources, led the fight to pass the administration bill. She cited polls and news accounts suggesting that a vast majority of Marylanders support the cap idea, and that the Clinton administration seems to favor it.

There may be an accidental coalition sizable enough to pass the bill. The welfare cap will attract support, especially from Republicans, and the elimination of restrictions on Medicare abortions will bring in pro-abortion-rights Democrats who don't like the benefit limitations.

The Civiletti Commission's recommendations had to be ''cost-neutral.'' The state had money to finance training and education only if the number of additional children born to welfare recipients leveled off. That the cap and the time-limited grants will produce some of those programmatic savings seems all but certain. New Jersey has been experimenting for only a few months, and observers are impressed with the financial results.

But there also seems little doubt that reform won't really succeed unless job training and day care are also provided, and these costs will prove hefty in future years. Welfare now pays about $355 million a year to roughly 80,000 families -- an average of about $4,400 a year in Aid to Families with Dependent Children, plus health care (maybe $2,000 a year through Medicaid) and other benefits.

For the state to create jobs for all of these 80,000 heads of household would cost about $700 million, assuming they're all minimum-wage jobs, or $1 billion a year, if they were paid $6 an hour ($12,500 a year). The next legislature may look to broadening the state's earned-income tax credit, to subsidize employers willing to make job offers to welfare recipients.

Clearly Maryland's welfare problems won't disappear with this legislation. But it reaches the system's worst feature -- its fostering of a growing, permanent underclass.

Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report and The Maryland Procurement Report newsletters.

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