Cardin critiques welfare reform limits

Says efforts must make work `pay, not painful'

February 16, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin praised Maryland's strides in reducing its welfare caseload, but criticized as "miserly" the state's policy for determining when to cut working people off from benefits.

Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, made the remarks at a hearing Monday in Baltimore of a congressional subcommittee investigating states' welfare reform efforts.

Marylanders lose 65 cents on the dollar in welfare benefits as soon as they get a job, with benefits ending entirely once a family of three brings in $640 a month. Only nine states have stricter policies, said Steve Bartolomei-Hill, director of the Maryland Budget & Tax Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank monitoring the state's welfare policies.

While he lauded the improvements, Cardin said "more needs to be done to make work pay, not painful."

State Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican, told Cardin the benefits cutoff actually is being kept low to keep welfare recipients from running into the 60-month lifetime limit on receiving any welfare help.

Cardin and fellow subcommittee members Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut and Phil English of Pennsylvania also questioned Maryland legislators and officials about their decision to hold in reserve some $70 million in welfare savings that advocates say could be used for more services to the poor.

Frederick W. Puddester, state secretary of budget and management, said the money is being reserved in a special account so it could be used in an economic downturn, when caseloads would likely rise again.

Since it began welfare reform in 1995, Maryland's welfare caseload has fallen by more than two-thirds. A study of people leaving the system shows that about half found jobs. Advocates for the poor, though, are worried about what is happening to the other half, and about others who appear to lose jobs shortly after getting them.

To alleviate some of those hardships, Cardin encouraged legislators to pass a law allowing mothers on welfare to receive some of the child-support payments meant for their children, instead of the money going directly to the state to offset welfare payments.

He also called on state officials to provide day-care help for more poor families. Maryland cuts off such aid when families earn more than 40 percent of the state's median income, compared with the federal government's cut-off point at 85 percent. Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget proposes increasing that amount to 45 percent.

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