Governor is all wrong on welfare family caps

April 19, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Eighty dollars a month is barely enough to keep a child in diapers. It certainly is not enough to give a woman an economic incentive to have babies.

Eighty dollars is what Maryland adds to a welfare recipient's check for each additional child. Maryland's generosity is about average -- many states pay a mother more. Many pay a whole lot less.

But Gov. William Donald Schaefer apparently believes $80 seduces women into having children and he has vowed to remove this profit motive from the welfare system by any means necessary. Now that the legislature has refused to pass his so-called family cap provision, he has promised to ask the federal government for permission to adopt the measure anyway. The family cap provision would deny extra payments to a woman who bears additional children while on welfare.

"I'm going to push for this as hard as I possibly can," says Governor Schaefer. "Family caps is where the country is going."

He is right. The Clinton administration is toying with the idea of making a mandatory, nationwide family cap provision part of its welfare reform. Maryland, California, Wisconsin and Arkansas are seeking federal permission to institute their own family cap rules. New Jersey already has such a program.

"We are not trying to punish people," explains Walinda P. West, a spokeswoman for Maryland's Department of Human Resources. "The idea is to help people make better choices."

But no matter how state officials try to justify their proposal, it is based on the premise that welfare recipients view having children as a way of increasing their benefits.

So, I went out yesterday and asked women how much it costs to care for a baby, focusing on diapers because I remember from my own experiences that diapers are a necessary item. Diapers, for instance, cannot be handed down like jumper suits or winter coats.

But the more women I talked with the angrier I became: Of course $80 cannot cover the costs of an additional child. Of course women aren't having children for fun and profit. Only a fool or a very mean-spirited person would insist otherwise.

So, I refuse to dignify the case for family caps by presenting Ms. So-and-So and letting her run down for us her monthly bills caring for her child. We know how much caring for a child costs. We know welfare recipients are not living high on the hog at taxpayer expense.

Welfare -- as we all know -- offers a life of misery and desperation; a life of squalor and violence. I wouldn't want to live on welfare. Neither would the governor. Neither do the overwhelming majority of welfare recipients.

"We keep talking about welfare recipients when what we should be talking about is the working poor because the two groups keep inter-changing," says Susan Leviton, of the Advocates for Children and Youth. "The real issue is that people keep going off welfare and then keep falling back again because they cannot keep the jobs. Meaningful reform would be to find ways to help such families stabilize their lives."

Says Ms. Leviton: "This whole debate over family caps seems so misplaced. Family caps are entirely irrelevant."

By the state's own admission, nearly half of all welfare mothers have just one child and only 5 percent have a second child while receiving benefits. By the state's own admission, 54 percent of all welfare families remain on the rolls for two years or less. And Maryland in its great generosity pays the typical welfare family of three about $660 in food stamps and benefits -- only two-thirds of what that family needs to survive, according to Maryland's own estimates.

Yet stereotypes -- the twisted perceptions of such people as Ronald Reagan and George Bush and, yes, William Donald Schaefer -- drive the welfare system. Policies often cater to the public's anger and miserliness and racism.

A vocal and influential minority believe that if we make welfare as unpleasant and demeaning as we possibly can, recipients will stop lounging about and get a job. Family caps fit this bill.

But it will not work. We cannot beat people out of poverty. We can only help them to help themselves.

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