Maryland tackles welfare reform New focus: Reforms geared toward self-sufficiency, not long-term maintenance.

April 19, 1996

WAITING FOR Washington has become a frustrating game for states eager to reform their welfare programs. What seemed a sure thing a year ago -- federal action on welfare -- has turned out to be a decidedly uncertain process.

A number of states have given up the wait and gone ahead with various reforms. In Maryland, the General Assembly has approved legislation that significantly changes the way the state helps its poorest citizens. Most of the changes will be positive, particularly since legislators refused to limit the number of years a recipient could stay on the welfare rolls or even to require them to participate in community service programs after two years.

Although the notion of community service is not objectionable, the cost of organizing and administering such a program would probably be more expensive than proponents like to admit. As for time limits on benefits, Gov. Parris N. Glendening had asked for a five-year cap, largely because most everyone expects that any national reform will include similar limitations. But until those limits are actually passed by Congress and signed into law, there is no reason to limit the state's flexibility prematurely.

The strength of Maryland's new approach is its emphasis on pointing families toward self-sufficiency. From recipients' first contact with the welfare system, social workers will be looking for ways to get them back on their feet.

Whether it is an emergency grant to keep them off welfare or permission to own a car valued at more than $1,500 (the previous limit), the new approach takes a more realistic approach to aid. It also repeals the socially destructive requirement that no father or stepfather be present in the household.

Will these reforms reduce the poverty and affiliated problems that are sapping the health of Maryland communities? That could depend on how well the program is implemented. These changes hold the potential for helping more families toward self-sufficiency and, equally important, discouraging long-term dependency.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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