Tinkering with Welfare

March 30, 1995

One problem with welfare reform is the tone of the debate. "Do as I say, not as I do," shout the politicians and angry voters -- plenty of whom are no longer married to the mothers or fathers of their own children and who seem as lacking in family values as some of the welfare mothers they preach to. Real welfare reform will come only when this country acknowledges the obvious: There will always be families who need a safety net. "Curing" the joblessness and hard times of those who have not found a foothold in the economy is going to be far more expensive than simply doling out payments every month.

In the meantime, there is room for tinkering, some of which could actually make a difference. In Annapolis, both the House and Senate have approved a pilot program that would serve 3,000 households in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Financed by delays in benefits for pregnant women and families just entering the rolls, the program would provide counseling and job training. If recipients are not employed within three months, they will be required to perform community service.

The program sounds like many other reform proposals, but the key to this one lies in the initial counseling period. Instead of simply filling out the proper forms, the application procedures for recipients under this program will include sessions with a caseworker to help them draw up a plan for getting off welfare. In addition to job training, recipients will be required to participate in family planning and health classes, unless they obtain a religious exemption. Caseworkers will be ready to intervene at any point if they seem to be treading water rather than moving toward self-sufficiency.

The chief legislative battle left to resolve is the matter of a "family cap," which would deny an increase in benefits to any woman who has an additional child more than 10 months after entering the program. The Senate version omits this provision. The House includes it with a caveat: The mother would forfeit some $30 of the customary increase, but she would be able to spend an additional $40 on her electronic benefits card for diapers or other non-food essentials.

We continue to believe that a cap on welfare benefits for additional children is unfair unless women have access to adequate birth control and to Medicaid-funded abortions. The House has defeated Gov. Parris Glendening's attempt to restore Medicaid funding. Even so, the plan's provisions for family planning and the House's allowance for essential purchases make this cap far more palatable than a more punitive version.

This pilot program will undoubtedly give many women a boost toward self-sufficiency. But it is only a small beginning. Faced with all the problems posed by the welfare morass, even imaginative reformers are too often reduced to tinkering.

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