ANNAPOLIS – With new federal welfare laws in effect, Maryland’s Legislature now faces the responsibility of moving welfare recipients into jobs before they are pushed from the rolls.
Their objective is to break the barriers that lawmakers feel keep welfare recipients out of work. Among this year’s bills are:
* The Welfare Innovation Act of 1997, which would require welfare applicants to meet additional eligibility requirements, including health screening and possibly drug treatment.
* A bill that would allow tax-exempt employers to trade tax credits — given to them for hiring welfare recipients — to other businesses for cash.
* Another that would reserve those credits for businesses that create jobs in order to hire recipients.
But while advocates for the poor commend the legislators’ intentions, they feel the bills are misguided and, at best, will have no effect at all.
The task facing both lawmakers and advocates is mandated by reforms signed into law by President Clinton last summer. Welfare recipients now must find a job within two years of joining the rolls, and may receive welfare for only five years within their lifetimes.
According to Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s office, there were still 177,375 people on the state welfare rolls in November, down 22 percent from the year before. Many policymakers are concerned that those with the most marketable job skills found jobs and caused the decline, leaving the state to contend with the tougher cases.
Whatever lawmakers do will be left to the Maryland Department of Human Resources to implement.
The department strongly supports tax credits, which are already in place in Maryland but would be modified by this session’s bills.
The department has taken no position on the bill allowing nonprofits to exchange tax credits for cash, a spokesman said. But it opposes restricting tax credits to employers creating new jobs.
Others back away from tax credits, period.
“It’s a very interesting shift in philosophy,” said Ann Ciekot, deputy director of Action for the Homeless, a Baltimore group. “We’re saying we want to get people off welfare. To do this, we have to get them into jobs. And to get them into jobs, we’re going to increase corporate welfare.”
Ciekot said the method only redirects state expenses. “We are taking money out of the hands of poor families and putting it into the business community,” she said.
Generally acknowledged as the most significant welfare bill of the session is the Welfare Innovation Act of 1997. The measure has the support of the Department of Human Resources, but is controversial among lawmakers and advocates for the poor.
The bill links welfare benefits to drug treatment. Applicants will be interviewed, and if drugs emerge as a problem, required to enroll in treatment as a condition of getting benefits.
Individuals who refuse to cooperate would lose assistance, but provisions would be made to provide support for any children the applicant might have.
“It was the view of the Joint Committee [on Welfare Reform, where the bill originated] that a significant barrier to work for a significant number of people was a drug or alcohol problem,” said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore County.
Del. John S. Morgan, R-Prince George’s, whose county one of Maryland’s largest welfare caseloads, says the bill would leave welfare funding for those who use it wisely.
Right now, Morgan said, “We’re paying for drugs, not for welfare. And that’s not appropriate.”
Maureen Robinson of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services took no official position on the bill, but worried about the image it presents.
“Are we assuming that everyone who applies for public assistance are alcohol or drug abusers?” Robinson asked.
Rosenberg, in response, said, “I think the numbers game is a fruitless exercise.” Far more people will benefit from the treatment programs than would be sanctioned under the bill, he said.
Even so, others attack the bill as elitist, saying it holds rich and poor to different standards for government aid.
Max Obuszewski of Marylanders Acting Against Poverty said the state would not drug test anyone else receiving tax money. He pointed to the example of stadium funding for Art Modell’s Baltimore Ravens.
“We see it as very discriminatory and… as more posturing to show how tough the governor is on welfare recipients,” Obuszewski said. -30-