New shoes. Health insurance. Car repairs.
For thousands of Maryland families on limited incomes, the most ordinary of expenses can be too much. But thanks to two new state programs, many low-wage families will soon have health coverage for their children and a few more dollars to spend on basic necessities.
One of the initiatives approved recently by the General Assembly will provide medical insurance for as many as 60,000 children and pregnant women from low-income households. The other will give tax rebates of as much as several hundred dollars to the working poor, even if they owe no state taxes.
For Lisa Rash of Easton, that means she can finally take her oldest children to the doctor without getting sick over the bill.
For Pamela Crawford of Odenton in Anne Arundel County, that means she is looking forward to an additional $139 from the state at tax time next spring -- money she needs to help keep her car running.
And for Lisa Miller of West Baltimore, the extra tax refund will help her buy summer clothes and shoes for her three little girls.
Given a booming economy and a state budget surplus that reached $352 million this year, many lawmakers said they felt a moral obligation to help out the 10 percent of Marylanders who live in poverty. The result was a public policy shift -- from tougher welfare policies and cutbacks in traditional government programs to new incentives to encourage people to work.
"I think it was appropriate, particularly when we're doing economically well, to give everyone some benefit," said Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat. "Part of it was this is an election year. But I would hope that when your state has the fourth-highest standard of living in the country, these are things you just should do."
Marylanders will qualify for the health insurance and tax rebates based on complicated formulas involving family size, income and other factors. For all their complexity, however, the programs will bring simple improvements to the lives of ordinary people -- such as Rash, Crawford and Miller, three single mothers who take pride in working hard, raising their children and making it on their own.
Rash says her two teen-agers don't get sick often, which is fortunate for her because she has to pay in full for every prescription, every dental visit, every eye examination.
She has been without health insurance for a decade, previously working as a waitress and now taking care of an elderly woman in Easton. Her family doesn't have a doctor. "When I get sick, or they get sick," she said, "I pretty much have to take care of it myself."
Her youngest, Amber, 12, is covered by a state medical assistance program. But her older children, Cassandra, 16, and Jonathan, 17, are not.
That's because Maryland provides health coverage for low-income families based on a sliding scale that cuts off virtually all teen-agers except those on welfare.
Many jobs lack benefits
The new state insurance, which goes into effect in July, extends coverage to those under age 19 in families with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level. For a family of four, that's $32,900. Currently, the state provides full coverage for children in a family of the same size with an income of $6,580.
"This is going to help a lot of folks," said Jane Hubbell, a nurse at Easton High School. "We see more kids without insurance than we do with insurance. A lot of people here are working at jobs that barely pay minimum wage, and they don't provide any benefits at all."
The health insurance expansion will cost $71.1 million in the first year, with the federal government picking up 65 percent of the cost.
Pamela Crawford wishes the state had expanded coverage a little earlier. Three of her six children are grown. But she plans to enroll her 15-year-old, Nicole.
"I haven't worried about insurance on a daily basis -- there's so much else to worry about," Crawford said. "But if you go to the doctor, it costs $50 to $70 for the visit, and then if there's a prescription, it really adds up."
Since her husband left nine years ago, Crawford has managed to pay the rent and feed and clothe her family, making $13,000 a year as a waitress in an Odenton cafe. She is proud to have kept her family together without going on welfare; she has never missed a day at work.
"The only way to make it is by yourself," she said. "I've impressed it on my kids to be independent and self-sufficient."
Health insurance has been a luxury she could never afford. By the time she has paid the bills and bought groceries each week, she said, "Guess what? There's nothing left over."
Now that her three oldest children are working, life is easier. And next spring, Crawford figures she will get a boost from the state -- a $139 refund.