Waiting for a waiver State welfare reform: Big changes were afoot here, even before national legislation.

August 07, 1996

FOR MANY STATES, the welfare legislation now awaiting President Clinton's signature represents a sea change in programs for assisting the poor. But for states that have set forth on their own experiments in welfare reform, changes similar to those enacted by Congress have already been put in effect.

In Maryland's case, officials are waiting for an expected waiver from the federal government to implement welfare reforms approved by the General Assembly. If granted, the waiver would give the state some leeway in choosing between provisions of the Maryland reform plan and the one crafted by Congress.

Either way, the changes will be far-reaching, a fact which takes some of the edge off opposition to the congressional plan. While there are differences between the two approaches -- for instance, Maryland says it would use its own money to retain an entitlement to assistance for families that qualify, while the congressional legislation does away with the federal entitlement there are many other areas in which the differences are only a matter of degree.

Both exemplify the shifting role of caseworkers from simply determining eligibility toward acting as job counselors and nudging families toward self-sufficiency. Both plans impose time limits and work requirements on recipients.

But degrees of difference can be significant, and Maryland officials are already worried about meeting the federal legislation's more stringent time limits on benefits and the tighter requirements for participation in work programs. But there's good news as well. The federal bill will bring Maryland an additional $14 million in new money for subsidized child care, which should be enough to meet needs for the next year or two.

Just how the federal requirements will play out remains uncertain -- the fine print of the legislation contains its share of surprises. Neither is it clear how sharp budget cuts in the food stamp program or the limits on assistance for legal immigrants will play out. But the shape of the bill -- an end to entitlement, work requirements, time limits -- has been debated so long it should have surprised no one. Maryland's own reforms are proof of that.

Pub Date: 8/07/96

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