ANNAPOLIS – State lawmakers asked representatives of the Department of Human Resources Thursday why they should overhaul the state’s welfare system before the pilot program adopted last year is fully implemented.
Delegates John Hurson, D-Montgomery, and Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, were particularly eager to know why the state should change its system when Congress has yet to enact any welfare reform of its own.
“Our customers want these changes,” Human Resources Secretary Alvin Collins responded at a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee. “We don’t need to pilot what we know is good policy.”
Under a proposal backed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the state would put a five-year lifetime limit on cash assistance and give local social service agencies greater latitude in the type of help they provide.
Much of the impetus for the governor’s proposal comes from welfare legislation that was vetoed by President Clinton. That legislation would have abolished the entitlement to cash assistance and child care. Instead, states would have received lump-sum payments, or “block grants.” At present there is no welfare bill before Congress.
“It’s premature to act,” Jodie Levin-Epstein, a policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C., told the committee.
Deputy Secretary of Human Resources Lynda Fox said the state would seek federal permission to implement Glendening’s proposal if Congress doesn’t act.
But Fox admitted during the hearing that without a federal law of the kind that was vetoed, “I’m not sure that we would want the kind of stringent time limits” called for in the bill.
Ten states have enacted limits of some kind on how long people can be on welfare, Jim Stover, a colleague of Levin- Epstein’s, said in a telephone interview.
But Jann Jackson, acting executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, told the committee that was no reason to follow suit.
“Why should we do to ourselves what even Newt Gingrich hasn’t been able to do to us?” Jackson asked.
On the other side, Ella May Russell, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Social Services, argued that there was no reason to wait.
“If we wring our hands and do nothing, we’ll be sitting here in 25 years, doing nothing,” she said.
Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick, said the state has already acted by adopting the pilot program in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties and in Baltimore. The administration proposal, she said, leaves out many of that program’s best provisions.
“I don’t see sanctions, I don’t see incentives, I don’t see many of the things we worked on so hard last year,” Hecht said.
Victoria Young, representing a social workers network, said the five-year limit would only put more pressure on the state’s existing child welfare programs.
As Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities, asked in an interview before the hearing: “Is there going to be an entitlement for child care, or is the new entitlement going to be foster care?”
Under questioning from lawmakers, Fox admitted that the new bill provided no guarantee that a welfare recipient would get money for child care so he or she could seek employment.
“We will try to provide as much child care as our resources permit,” Fox said.
J. Peter Sabonis, legal director for the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore, objected that the bill includes no requirement that welfare recipients who find jobs be paid a decent salary.
“It does nothing more than transfer welfare poor people to working poor people,” he said before the hearing began.
Other provisions of the legislation include:
– A loss of the first two weeks’ benefits.
– A requirement that juvenile parents live with a relative unless a social service worker confirms “that the minor parent or child’s physical safety or emotional health would otherwise be in jeopardy.”
– A “family cap.” Under this provision, a woman who has a child more than 10 months after she applies for welfare benefits would get a voucher for baby supplies instead of cash. However, a woman subject to the family cap would get the full amount of any child support for that child. Under current regulations, the state keeps all but $50. -30-