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Numbers game


According to Maryland welfare officials' calculations, 20 percent of state welfare recipients are taking part in work activities to prepare them for permanent full-time jobs. Problem is, federal law requires the rate to be 50 percent.

State welfare administrators argue, with some credibility, that unlike other states Maryland strictly counts only those who are actually working, and that's why it ranks near the bottom in national measurements of work participation rates.

Nonetheless, Maryland must raise its rate - or face reduced federal funding. But it won't be easy: Of the nearly 62,000 state residents who remain on welfare, many have little or no work experience, are undereducated or have barriers such as mental illness, learning disabilities or drug addiction. State-funded work programs proved effective early on in paring down the welfare rolls and moving thousands of people into jobs. Now that they are down to the harder cases, however, state welfare officials must design more specialized programs for people with serious or multiple barriers to self-sufficiency.

Despite its low work participation rate, Maryland has largely avoided federal penalties in the past because it earned credits for reducing its welfare caseload. But the new regulations will make it harder to earn the credits, forcing states like this one to either eliminate assistance to some poor families in order to reduce the caseload or find ways to significantly increase work participation rates.

Unfortunately, the new rules were approved with little debate as part of the budget bill passed this week, letting lawmakers off the hook from having to explain the fairness of asking states to increase work rates without additional federal funding for programs that could provide the jobs.

No amount of regulation will make every welfare recipient self-sufficient, especially given the challenges faced by those still on the rolls. Lawmakers should amend the law to make allowances for those who may never be able to get, or keep, jobs.

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