Needy unlikely to see aid rise

Advocates seek boost in state benefits for disabled adults

Cuts made during '90s

March 05, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

During the recession of the early 1990s, Maryland slashed benefits to more than 20,000 disabled adults, taking away medical coverage from most of them and cutting their monthly checks to $157 a month.

Now, when the state has a $1 billion surplus, few are talking about restoring those benefits.

"We often hear it said, particularly during this time of a strong economy and a record stock market, that a rising tide lifts all boats," said Kevin Lindamood, an advocate for the homeless in Baltimore.

"What we're seeing now is evidence that this is, in fact, not the case."

Now, more than 10,000 jobless single adults receive $132 a month each from a reconfigured state program designed to help people until they qualify for federal disability payments.

The program, called Temporary and Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance (TEMHA), is their only safety net, besides food stamps, while they wait an average of two years for the federal benefits.

It's not much of a net. The monthly checks add up to $1,584 a year (or $4.34 a day), less than one-fifth the amount a single adult would need to reach the federal poverty line. Thousands of people in the program are homeless for periods of time.

Once known as General Public Assistance, the state program's budget has been deeply cut and was eliminated twice during the recession, then half-resurrected each time. A number of other poverty programs in Maryland and across the nation also were cut during the lean times.

This year, advocates for the poor are fighting to get back some of that money for poverty programs during the Maryland General Assembly session that ends next month. Their struggle demonstrates that even in the best of times, entitlement programs can be a hard sell.

Independence stressed

"The whole philosophy behind welfare reform is that we don't continue with things like cash payments, but we work on things that help people achieve financial independence," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who exercises great authority over the budget. "We switch the money to the other programs that will actually help people reach independence."

In recent years, the governor and the legislature have largely rebuilt state government. They have plowed dollars into hiring state workers, building public schools and colleges, and expanding a wide range of programs, more than making up for many of the cuts in the first half of the decade.

The state also has initiated tax rebates for the working poor and extended health care to 60,000 previously uninsured children and pregnant women. Glendening's budget includes an $81 million increase this year for poor families, including child care, job training and after-school programs.

The bulk of those programs are designed to help families reach self-sufficiency and keep the working poor employed.

As a constituency, jobless, disabled adults don't attract sympathy the way children or the working poor do, and the state has not directed new money to them.

That reflects a national trend. In this era of welfare reform, with its credo of self-sufficiency, many states have been reluctant to pump new money into direct, cash-assistance programs.

Some Maryland legislators say now is the time to find more money for the poor.

"I think it sends the wrong message if we leave the session in a time of probably our greatest prosperity and we have not addressed the needs of our citizens who are disadvantaged," said Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Others point out that many demands are competing for the state's wealth.

"The governor's in a very difficult position," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "It's a question of balancing so many needs and trying to help as many different special causes in one year without creating an unmanageable budget in future years."

From 1990 to 1993, Maryland cut spending by $2 billion. Hundreds of state employees lost their jobs. Local aid programs were killed. The state withheld money it had promised for Maryland campuses. Poverty programs lost several hundred million dollars.

It was a painful time for the General Assembly and Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who had to make most of the cuts.

"It was very, very personally difficult," said Paul E. Schurick, who was chief of staff for Schaefer. "When you couldn't get into or out of your offices because people who depended on these programs were disrupting you as a form of protest, that's no longer in the abstract."

Schurick warned today's decision-makers not to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, when the state fattened programs during affluent times.

"What happened in the mid-1980s is the state government created dependency, and by the late '80s and into the early '90s, it had on its hands a pretty significant number of people that were dependent on something the state could no longer give. I would hate to see that sin re-created," Schurick said.

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