Md. impact of welfare law weighed Reforms planned by state complicate implementation effort

Advocates fear for children

Restrictions on adults without offspring will be felt first

August 04, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

With President Clinton poised to sign into law an overhaul of the nation's welfare system, state and local officials are still grappling with a fundamental question: How will it affect Maryland's poor?

The federal legislation essentially ends the 61-year-old national guarantee of cash assistance to the needy. It will mean people across the country will receive no more than five years of aid during their lifetime. Recipients will be required to work in exchange for assistance.

New limits will reduce food stamp benefits, particularly for unemployed adults without children. Legal immigrants who lack U.S. citizenship will be ineligible for most benefits unless they've held jobs for five years.

But when will these requirements go into effect? How will welfare offices keep tabs on how long aid has been granted, especially to people who have previously received benefits in other states? And who will be eligible for the "hardship" exemptions that lift the five-year lifetime limit for up to 20 percent of recipients?

Making things even more complicated, Maryland is awaiting a federal waiver to implement its own version of welfare reform. Legislation approved by the General Assembly in April could give Gov. Parris N. Glendening a short-term choice this fall: follow the old rules, the new state rules, or the federal reforms.

"This is going to be an implementation nightmare," said Lynda G. Fox, deputy secretary for the state Department of Human Resources.

In Maryland, 63,211 adults and 140,042 children receive monthly benefits totaling $23.6 million under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. A typical household, a woman in her late teens or early 20s with two children, receives $373. The cost of the monthly AFDC payments is split between the state and federal governments.

Food stamps benefit 376,074 Maryland residents, with that cost born entirely by federal taxpayers.

The total size of payments from the two programs: about $660 million annually in Maryland.

Most people will not lose benefits immediately under welfare reform. The clock does not begin ticking on the five-year limit until Oct. 1 at the earliest. Even so, Maryland officials estimate that only one in five welfare recipients has been on the rolls more than five years -- for the same percentage -- 20 percent -- the state can exempt under the hardship rule.

But the new restrictions will be felt eventually. In two years, the head of every welfare household will have to work or risk losing benefits. The state can offer a community service job, but it's an unlikely option for Maryland, where such an undertaking would have to be massive -- affecting as many as 56,000 AFDC recipients, Fox said.

"If our real goal is to get people into real work, we don't want to divert our attention into creating community service jobs," she .. said.

Local officials said they've found that many welfare recipients can find jobs but holding them is often another matter. The average AFDC beneficiary has been in the program for about three years, but not necessarily consecutively.

"We have people who get jobs but then things fall apart," said Maureen Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. "A lot of things can go wrong when you're on the edge."

The more immediate impact will be felt by estimated 17,000 able-bodied adults between ages 18 and 50 who have no children. They will get no more than three months of food stamps in any three-year period unless they are employed at least 20 hours a week.

Maryland welfare advocates said this "tear" in the safety net for adults is one of the most onerous elements of federal welfare reform. They point out that the government definition of "able-bodied" will include many who have physical and mental disabilities that make it difficult for them to hold any kind of job.

"We are saying it's OK to take away someone's right to eat," said Ann T. Ciekot, spokeswoman for Action for the Homeless, a Baltimore-based advocacy group. "I don't know why we're telling people they will have to stand in soup kitchen lines all day and expect your health to deteriorate further."

How the reform could affect children is also of grave concern to advocates. A University of Baltimore study estimated that only 8,800 entry level jobs were created in Maryland last year in fields such as restaurants and retail stores. Switching an adult from welfare to a low-paying job could cause hardship for children if the family's net income is reduced, they said.

"This is going to mean more kids are poor," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "We have really lost our way."

Advocates concede, however, that Maryland may be in better shape to adopt the federal reforms because of the state reforms begun last spring. Workers are already being trained in how best to divert welfare applicants into jobs and new efforts have begun to improve child support enforcement.

The Maryland law also retains the guarantee of economic assistance to all those who qualify -- a provision that could be hard for the state to maintain once federal money is capped in a block grant, however.

"We don't want to ever say the program is closed," Fox said. "That would be a last resort."

At a former East Baltimore Sears store converted to a welfare center, few of the adults waiting for service yesterday hadn't heard that welfare reforms were coming. Most said they would happily take a job -- if they could keep medical benefits and get help with child care.

"I look for work almost every day," said Dominique McIntosh, 20, a part-time cleaner with a 4-year-old daughter and a 10th-grade education. "I guess there are people more qualified than me."

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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