Wishful Thinking on Welfare

May 01, 1994

Welfare reform was high on Gov. William Donald Schaefer's list of priorities this year. But the welfare reform bill that passed the General Assembly is sitting on his desk, facing a possible veto because it does not contain a "family cap," a provision that would deny an increase in benefits to a woman who has an additional child after being placed on the welfare rolls.

The cap appeals to fairness, but the governor's attachment to it is somewhat puzzling. He asserts that it would save money, but that is a dubious proposition since it would affect only a minority of women on welfare.

Moreover, saving money is not what welfare reform is all about. Critics of the current welfare system -- and they are legion -- often fail to admit the obvious. The system in place now, a system which does little more than attempt to maintain poor families at some minimal standard of living, is the cheapest welfare system possible. To do more -- to attempt to instill self-sufficiency -- costs a lot more money, since it requires paying for job training, job searches, child care and the like. So it strikes us as somewhat disingenuous for the governor to cling to a family cap for economic reasons.

To its credit, the legislature acted with conscience on this issue, refusing to adopt a family cap unless the governor lifted Medicaid restrictions on abortions for poor women and increased access to family planning. It's patently unfair, and self-defeating as well, for the state to punish women (and children) when it does nothing to help them limit the size of their families.

The governor made the lifting of Medicaid abortion restrictions contingent on the family cap. He could easily have simply done it with no strings attached; the votes were there to support him. That, in fact, would have done much more to save money on welfare than a family cap.

The welfare reform bill now awaiting his signature is far from perfect. It's a limited pilot program designed to help welfare recipients become self sufficient, so it does involve some expense. But it also does common-sense things, such as making family planning services convenient and accessible.

The governor didn't get exactly what he wanted in welfare

reform. But then, by talking of "reform" and "saving money" in the same breath, it's not at all clear what he wants. You can't have both. Reform -- at least a tentative step in that direction -- is on his desk, waiting for a signature. Saving money is the status quo.

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