Welfare plan prods clients to get work Reform proposals would help people keep jobs, too

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Imagine a welfare system that fixes your car.

That day could be coming under a Maryland gubernatorial commission's sweeping welfare reform proposal, patterned on a Riverside, Calif., program that tells clients to "get a job, any job."

Maryland also wants to help poor people keep jobs -- paying for car repairs, for example, if a broken-down car is the only thing stopping a person from getting to work.

The central principle of the draft proposal, to be released tomorrow for public comment, is that the state no longer owes anyone a living.

"The idea is to make it tough to stay on [welfare]," said Daryl C. Plevy, deputy director for programs at the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "The thinking is, you no longer have a right to unconditional income maintenance just because you're poor."

The Governor's Commission on Welfare Policy, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, has been meeting since February and must deliver its initial recommendations to Gov. William Donald Schaefer by the end of the month..

The commission's plan, if implemented, could catapult Maryland to the forefront of welfare reform and influence the national overhaul promised by President Clinton.

Over the course of their first few meetings, the commission's 20 members -- who include heads of local departments of social services, legislators, members of the business community and a former welfare recipient -- quickly agreed that it doesn't pay to work or marry if you're eligible for welfare.

Under the current system, welfare in Maryland pays a woman with two children just under $370 a month, along with food stamps. A 40-hour-per-week job at minimum wage would pay almost $700, but probably wouldn't provide health benefits or child care. Money earned from part-time work is deducted from welfare checks, dollar for dollar.

At the same time, two-parent families are seldom eligible for assistance and can work no more than 100 hours a month, if they are. If the family owns a car, its value must be less than $4,500. Savings accounts also are capped.

And, under the current system, there is little flexibility when it comes to helping people who have just one problem. That's where car repairs come in. Under the commission's "Single Need" recommendation, the state would create small grants to fix a problem keeping someone from work, such as a broken car.

In return for that help, the client would agree not to come back to the system for six months. If the client broke this covenant, in anything other than catastrophic circumstances, the client would expected to repay the initial grant.

This is one small plank in the draft, but it embodies the commission's overall approach. The idea is to make work more attractive, Ms. Plevy said, while asking the client to meet certain expectations. There would be a time limit. And if the client failed, there would be a penalty. Other highlights of the commission's ++ proposed Family Investment System include:

* A "Family Service Agreement," a contract that will spell out clients' responsibilities while they receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

* Aggressive collection of child support, but also job-training opportunities for fathers.

* "Progressive sanctions" that would penalize those who do not fulfill the agreement -- looking for jobs and staying in them. Although details of the draft may change, the panel recommends a 20 percent cut the first month, followed by a 10 percent cut each following month. Those who refuse to work would be required to perform community service.

This is one of the more controversial provisions and still must be voted on by commission members.

* Capping benefits based on the size of a family when it comes on to the welfare rolls. Although this would seem at odds with the governor's long-stated objection to freezing benefit levels, VTC Ms. Plevy said families, ideally, shouldn't be on welfare long enough to have additional children.

* The Earned Income Tax credit, which can provide up to $2,211 per year for those in the job market. This will be used to help people bridge the gap between minimum-wage jobs and the $6-per-hour standard considered sufficient to support an average family.

* While eligibility standards, based on the poverty line, would not change and savings accounts would still be capped, families might be allowed to own cars worth up to $7,500.

* The commission also recommends that health care and child care be made available, but does not specify how to pay for these services.

Lynda E. Meade, who has monitored the commission's meetings as a member of Welfare Advocates, has reservations about the plan.

"Anything that makes work pay and gives a person some path to self-sufficiency, it seems to me, would be welcome by clients," Ms. Meade said. "On the other hand, the simplicity of getting a job, any job, could be somewhat problematic in a state that has had the second highest job loss of any state."

Welfare Advocates, which surveyed hundreds of welfare clients and social workers, found that a job is only part of what most public assistance recipients want. The job needs to be full time, according to the responses, or to come with health care and child care.

"It [a job] was always coupled with something else," Ms. Meade noted.

Meanwhile, some commission members are uncomfortable with the emphasis on sanctions, pointing out that welfare checks are really for children, not their parents.

"It's fascinating, trying to figure out how you really protect children, and how, at the same time, you move people toward self-sufficiency," said commission member Susan P. Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth. "The thing that is really striking is we don't have any data to help us make good decisions."

For example, Ms. Leviton said, teen mothers are considered one of the most pressing problems in the state, yet there are no good numbers on how many there are. The commission also has not had time to analyze the cost benefits of different approaches.

Ultimately, welfare reform in Maryland is not expected to cost the state additional money -- start-up costs should be offset by savings later on, as people leave the welfare rolls.

But, as Ms. Meade pointed out, that was also the idea behind Project Independence, a welfare-to-work program launched in the late 1980s. The recession set in soon after the program went statewide, sending welfare rolls spiraling to their highest levels in history.

MARYLAND WELFARE AT A GLANCE

Costs of AFDC

1989: $264 million

1990: 290 million

1991: 323 million

1992: 336 million

1993: *314 million

* Costs dropped as rolls stabilized and grants were reduced

Households on welfare

1989: 64,100

1990: 69,900

1991: 78,000

1992: 80,500

1993: 80,000

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