Reinventing welfare


Maryland is not the first state to try to revamp the welfare system. Others have already started down that road. The Free State itself has several times tried out new ways to encourage recipients to seek employment. But the reform proposal now being drafted could be the most comprehensive overhaul yet tried.

The biggest change is how welfare is perceived. The Governor's Commission on Welfare Policy, which is led by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, aims at finding ways to encourage recipients to find work rather than stay on welfare. As Human Resources Department Deputy Secretary Daryl C. Plevy put it, "The idea is to make it tough to stay on [welfare]. The thinking is, you no longer have a right to unconditional income maintenance just because you're poor."

The rhetoric sounds great. But the commission still has some crucial matters to confront if it wants to present the governor with recommendations that are rooted in reality:

How, for instance, are welfare recipients supposed to afford child care if they go to work at minimum-wage jobs?

Where is the state government going to find the millions of dollars needed for education and job training for all these welfare recipients?

How can a state with one of the highest job losses in the country find work for 80,000 welfare recipients?

How will these new workers be able to afford health-care insurance?

These are tough questions to answer. No state has found a solution yet. But there is clearly a consensus among Americans that the current system is chock full of disincentives for welfare recipients and ought to be replaced. The Clinton White House has its own task force preparing a welfare proposal that will have the same philosophical underpinning as Maryland's budding reform plan.

Innovative approaches that make work more attractive to welfare recipients -- through a combination of incentives and penalties -- are sure to be a central focus of the state's new effort. It will be up to Gov. William Donald Schaefer to sell this proposal to the General Assembly -- a tough job in itself. He will also have to tackle the equally daunting tasks of locating money to pay for this welfare overhaul while stimulating the state's lagging economy so it produces more than enough jobs for all the men and women who will be coming off Maryland's welfare rolls.

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