Aiding welfare reform

THE BALTIMORE SUN

REPUBLICANS IN Washington point to the $3 billion in unspent welfare money among 33 states as proof that new spending proposed by President Clinton for child care and job training is unnecessary.

The situation is more complicated than that. Nationally, welfare reform has had a learning curve not only for former grant recipients, but also for government agencies overhauling the 40-year-old welfare state.

Lawmakers in Annapolis recently became aware that Maryland hasn't spent about $150 million in federal block grant funds, one-third of the total available to it. The state has cut caseloads so sharply that it is in jeopardy of falling short of federal "maintenance of effort" standards for welfare by up to $27 million, which would trigger a dollar-for-dollar cut in federal aid.

Maryland is third stingiest, after Texas and West Virginia, in its standard for cutting off cash assistance once a welfare recipient finds work. When a family of three in Maryland earns $520 a month, it loses all cash aid. That's much lower than the cutoffs in Pennsylvania ($800), Virginia ($1,110) and other states with comparable costs-of-living. And $520 a month doesn't go far, especially when fair market rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Maryland is $561 a month.

It is not out of line for Maryland to move closer to federal minimum spending requirements by raising the level at which people are cut off from full assistance.

This would not signal a retreat on welfare reform. The maximum five years' assistance could remain in place. Maryland's working poor would simply be given longer to rise out of poverty. Some of the state's shortfall should also be spent on services to help people succeed, such as support for child care, job training and transportation.

Such tinkering wouldn't change the fact that welfare reform has undeniably been a positive.

Pub Date: 3/27/99

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