Welfare Reform Lesson

May 01, 1994|By LAURA LIPPMAN

Carolyn Colvin, Maryland's Human Resources secretary, once expressed the hope that the state's attempt at welfare reform would blaze a trail for the Clinton administration.

In hindsight, that now seems overwhelmingly ambitious for a plan that was largely a pastiche of proposals already tried, or about to be tried, in other states.

The family cap? New Jersey gets to take credit for that innovation, which freezes benefits when welfare recipients have more children. (Early results are promising, but incomplete.) Limiting the amount of time a person is eligible to receive welfare? Maryland won't be the first to try that, either.

Yet it is the cap, defeated by the General Assembly, for which the governor mourns. And he may still appeal to the federal government to allow Maryland to try this approach, despite the lack of legislative backing.

The story of the governor and his new-found passion for the family cap is a strange saga -- a cautionary tale about the limits of "revenue-neutral" welfare reform. For what began as a philosophical love affair quickly metamorphosed into a fiscal necessity.

And it is true, as the governor and Ms. Colvin have lamented, that taking the cap out of the bill left only a three-county pilot program in which 2,000 families will be given 18 months to find jobs. At the end of that time, recipients will have to do community service or lose a portion of their grants.

"The key was the cap," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said the day after the legislature adjourned. "That's where the country is going." In fact, that's where some states are going though the federal government has shown little interest in penalizing welfare mothers who have more children. The Clinton proposal is based on a two-year limit for welfare, targeting those born after 1971 for its stricter welfare-to-work proposal.

The family cap addresses a problem almost every expert agrees doesn't exist: women who deliberately have more children in order to increase their welfare payments. Instead, welfare scholars say, governments should try to create a disincentive for havingthe first child. The federal plan, by setting tougher work requirements for those born after 1971, has a shot at doing that. As Mickey Kaus, author of "The End of Equality," wrote recently ** in the New Republic: "[T]eenage girls who haven't yet had the illegitimate child that puts them on the dole would know that for them, welfare-as-usual had ended."

The governor once despised the family cap. For most of his political career -- on City Council, as mayor and well into his second term as governor -- Mr. Schaefer vehemently rejected the idea of freezing welfare benefits. It hurt the children, he told The Sun in the fall of 1992, and had never been shown to change the parent's behavior.

A few weeks later, Ms. Colvin echoed her boss' sentiments: "I'm very much opposed to that, and I'll tell you why. AFDC stands for Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Once a child is born, I think we have a responsibility as a state to see that child is at least minimally provided for. . . . The average [welfare] family has a mother and two children, for one thing."

A year later, the size of the average welfare family hadn't changed, but the governor and Ms. Colvin had. The family cap was now the only way to go, they said, declaring their new-found commitment to a policy they once opposed vigorously.

Asked to explain his shift, the governor said: "I think we're trying to send a message that if you can take care of the child at nonpublic expense, fine. If you can't, maybe you shouldn't have that child."

The family cap, however, also fit neatly with the governor's desire not to spend any additional money on welfare reform. Over the life of Maryland's five-year pilot program, the statewide cap is expected to save enough money to provide its 2,000 families with extra services, such as child care and parenting classes.

The paradox of true welfare reform is that it costs money, in the short term, to save money in the long term. Governments have to pay for job creation, job training, day care and medical benefits. Even ending welfare might cost money, because cutting cash payments to mothers would inevitably increase the number of neglected children and homeless families.

The federal government will give states permission to experiment but will not provide funds for these experiments. So Maryland, committed to "revenue neutral" welfare reform, had to find savings within the Department of Human Resources. The family cap provided those savings. It was the ultimate two-fer.

When the legislature took the family cap out of the welfare reform bill, it left the Department of Human Resources with a potential deficit -- $12 million over five years. A DHR spokeswoman said the department does not want to leave a new governor with a shortfall.

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