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There's no defense for welfare change


On May 1, the state began requiring welfare recipients to produce proof that their children attend school regularly and receive proper medical care.

By January, clients who refuse to produce this proof could have their monthly checks cut by 30 percent.

These are the first steps in the planned restructuring of the welfare system's entitlement programs, announced last December by Carolyn W. Colvin, secretary of the Department of Human Resources.

"We've got to demonstrate that those people who are receiving public support are to be held accountable," Colvin said.

Now, when these plans were first announced, I wrote that state officials had made David Duke and his ilk very happy.

I accused officials of feeding the notion that welfare recipients are willfully irresponsible -- as though recipients found living on the dole a delight and a privilege, as though there were scores of welfare kings and queens lounging about, growing fat at public expense.

And I said officials who work closest with the system and the people it purports to serve ought to know better.

Since then, state officials have insisted that they do know better.

"This decision was not made hastily, nor was it made to placate ignorant critics," wrote Colvin in response to the column. "It was made, after months of consideration, to answer very real concerns.

"You doubt whether threats and penalties will help parents get off welfare faster. So do I. Unlike some of DHR's vocal critics, I have the greatest admiration and respect for most of the parents of these children. I realize they are trying to do a difficult job with very limited resources. I also know they want the best for their children."

Helen Szablya, Colvin's press secretary, said the program is not intended to be punitive, but to help case workers identify families with problems so that they can receive extra help.

"We're looking at this as a weather vane, an early indicator of problems that we can address before they grow worse," said Szablya, adding that families will have their benefits cut only after they demonstrate they are willfully neglectful and resistant to help.

Officials acknowledge there is little evidence welfare parents deliberately hold their children out of school or deny them medical care. Studies show little or no difference in school attendance between families receiving welfare and those who don't.

However, poor families face such a complexity of problems they sometimes make bad choices for their children -- choices that may condemn the next generation to poverty.

Therefore, a restructuring of the system that results in a renewed focus on helping families sort through these difficulties and make good choices is a positive step.

That's exactly what we're doing, say state officials.

That's not what they are doing. However you rationalize and analyze it, state officials right now are pandering to the prejudiced.

The penalties are the giveaway.

If the state really wanted to help troubled families, and if it really believed the majority of parents want to do what is best for their children, the penalties would be superfluous.

Case workers would respond to the "weather vane" of problems and do whatever was necessary to help parents help themselves. Threats wouldn't be necessary, just direction.

And, if the state identified families that were so troubled that they did not want their children to go to school or receive medical care, that would be indications of problems so severe that the penalties would again be superfluous.

Workers probably would be moved to intervene in other ways for such families, remove the children, or intensify services rather than cut them.

No, the announced penalties are purely to placate the public.

The penalties pander to the perception that most parents on welfare are irresponsible. The penalties answer demands that the state get tough, when officials know that getting tough is not what is wrong with the system.

Since I respect the state officials involved, I'll accept that they are engaging in the kind of sleight-of-hand tactics developed during the years of the Reagan administration, when public policy became so mean-spirited that people in the human services fields had to find ways to help people, literally behind the public's back.

But the Reagans and the Dukes and, yes, the Bushes of this world thrive on timidity.

When no one is prepared to speak the truth about what is wrong with the system and what is needed to correct it, demagogues are given free rein to say what they like.

And when that happens, public policy becomes terribly distorted. Guess what. Public policy today is terribly distorted.

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