ANNAPOLIS – State welfare officials have abandoned all thought of imposing a five-year lifetime limit on benefits, and now say any such limit will have to come from Congress.
“Maryland’s not going to do something before the federal government requires us to do it,” Lynda Fox, deputy secretary of the Department of Human Resources, said Thursday outside a hearing on a welfare reform bill by the Senate Finance Committee.
Fox said she supports language in the Senate bill that makes any time limits “null and void” unless Congress imposes them nationwide.
Fox said she will ask the House Appropriations Committee to put similar language in a welfare reform bill introduced by the department.
Technically, such language isn’t necessary, since states can’t impose time limits of their own without federal permission. But Fox said it would underscore Maryland’s reluctance to act unilaterally.
“What we don’t want to do is disadvantage poor people in Maryland [compared to] poor people in other states,” Fox said.
Fox said the department included a time limit in its bill because Congress passed legislation with such limits in December. The day before the General Assembly convened, however, President Clinton vetoed that bill, and debate on welfare proposals in Congress has since bogged down.
Fox said that with passage of federal legislation “much less certain,” her agency is no longer willing to get ahead of the curve.
Stephen Buckingham, a lobbyist for social workers, welcomed the department’s decision to move away from setting time limits.
Buckingham said that the best way to move people off welfare is to give them incentives. In the past, he has supported such provisions as childcare while recipients look for work.
“You don’t need the stick if you’ve got carrots that work,” Buckingham said.
A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the department’s decision was not at odds with the governor’s desire to “take a more decisive approach” to welfare reform.
“The governor is very comfortable with allowing the Secretary to work out the details of this bill with the legislature,” said Ray Feldmann.
Likewise, Fox said the change is “minor,” and will only delay the day of reckoning. In her view, federal time limits of some kind are inevitable.
J. Peter Sabonis, director of a statewide legal services program for the homeless, said the state was wise to let Congress make the first move.
“Maybe this means that the state is going to get out of the business of reading palms,” he said. “They’ve tried to play this Jeanne Dixon game for the last two years, and they just can’t get it right.”
But Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, said the state shouldn’t wait.
“We ought to get out ahead of the pack,” he said, adding of Congress, “It’s pretty cynical, but I’m not sure those guys are capable of doing anything.” A time limit on benefits, Astle said, provides a needed incentive for “those who have been inclined to use [welfare] as a career.” -30-