If Only the People Wouldn't Intrude on the Symbols

July 02, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Sometimes politicians get too cute for the public good. They play to the voters too much. Or they play insider politics too long. In the end, it backfires. But by then, some innocent citizens have suffered.

Take the Disability Assistance Loan Program, or DALP. This is the state's solution to a difficult social situation. These *~ individuals, some 22,000, have doctor-certified disabilities that leave them unable to work. They either don't qualify for federal disability payments or are waiting for the federal bureaucracy to finish shuffling their applications, which can take over a year.

The program was designed as a ''bridge'' to help these people until they are eligible for federal benefits or are well enough to return to work. It cost $48 million last year. The maximum payment was $157 a month. That's not a king's ransom, but enough to keep people off the streets and out of hospitals.

Yet as of yesterday, the payments stopped. Gov. Parris Glendening, in a rush to demonstrate his commitment to wiping out waste in government spending, eliminated all money for the program. Too many substance abusers taking advantage of it, he claimed. He didn't like the idea of cash payments, either.

So he set up a much smaller housing-voucher program and a medical-assistance plan. Total savings: $30 million.

There is every indication the Glendening approach will fall far short of helping all the people who need legitimate help. The folks on disability assistance can barely make it on their own. Most have multiple problems, including AIDS, mental illness, heart disease, muscular disabilities, diabetes, drug or alcohol addiction.

There may have been abuse -- but the extent of it seems to have been exaggerated. The cash they got enabled most recipients to buy toothpaste or toilet paper or soap or pay for meager shelter. By junking the entire program, the governor engaged in overkill.

What's going to happen to these 22,000 people? They won't disappear. Estimates are that in Baltimore another 1,000 people will be living on the streets. Food banks and soup kitchens will be further strained. Crime is likely to rise, too. Even state analysts admit this is the likely outcome.

How short-sighted. To save $30 million, the state could end up with far larger bills. If 5 percent of the disability-assistance recipients wind up in jail, the cost of housing them will be $24 million. If another 5 percent are returned to state mental hospitals, the price tag is $36 million. The added cost of a new wave of homeless people is difficult to calculate.

These expenses make the program cheap, even with its flaws.

But Mr. Glendening is making a political point. The 22,000 recipients are being used as political pawns. By axing the program Mr. Glendening establishes his bona fides as a tough-on-waste governor. Too bad he didn't think through the consequences ahead of time. He would have been better off tightening eligibility and adding safeguards against fraud.

His patchwork replacement program isn't likely to do the trick. It could wind up costing the state more, not less, money.

But Mr. Glendening wasn't the only person playing politics. Baltimore's Mayor Kurt Schmoke decided to take a typical low-key approach. Instead of ranting and railing in Annapolis earlier this year to force the governor to relent, he remained silent. He failed to heed the pleas of city senators and delegates for him to publicly criticize the governor and demand the restoration of funds.

What Mr. Schmoke did instead was write letters to the governor. They may have had symbolic value but they failed to change anything. Mr. Schmoke didn't want to embarrass the new governor, whom he had supported. The favor wasn't returned.

Now, with the city election campaign about to begin in earnest, the mayor has gone public with a new plea for Mr. Glendening to save the disability-assistance program. Too late. By about five .. months. It was strictly a campaign gimmick.

When politicians cynically maneuver for advantage by using society's weakest and most vulnerable members as a target, it's time to reconsider our values and our methods of doing business. Sadly, it may take a human tragedy -- the failure of the DALP replacement program -- to rectify this situation.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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