WASHINGTON – Maryland received $1,933 per poor child in federal welfare dollars last year, the eighth-highest allocation rate in the country, according to a recent study.
Only a few states and the District of Columbia collected more relative to their population of needy kids than Maryland, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported last week.
Alaska, Connecticut and Vermont topped the list, at roughly $2,400 per child. At the bottom of the roster were Alabama, Arkansas and Texas, which got less than $375 per poor child, about one-fifth of Maryland’s allowance, in fiscal 2001. Virginia ranked 43rd, with $729 per child.
But while the study compared funding available to states, it did not measure how well the money was spent — or even how many dollars went directly to poor kids. And child welfare advocates said Maryland, despite its wealth, still has a lot to do.
“If we’re such a rich state, I don’t know that that degree of advantage is reflected in our cash assistance programs for low-income children,” said Steve Hill, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute.
“On the one hand, we have a lot of money per child. On the other hand, some of our policy choices don’t reflect that,” Hill said.
State officials said Maryland is well-off — but maybe not as much as the report suggests. Maryland fares well because it has far fewer children living below the federal poverty level — the standard used in the study — than elsewhere in the country, said Richard Larson, policy and research director at the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
“Maryland has the second-lowest child-poverty rate in the country,” Larson said. “Compared to population, we have relatively few children in poverty. That’s why the numbers look good.”
Maryland also gets a hefty federal block grant — about $230 million a year — through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Its share is greater than many states’ because 1996 welfare reform laws gave more cash to states like Maryland that had generously allotted local dollars to cash assistance programs in the mid-’90s.
Not all that money goes directly to poor kids or their families in the form of cash assistance. The block grant is also used for child-care and job- training programs and other initiatives that support working families.
Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities in Baltimore, said resting on the laurels of a high TANF allocation rate will not help the state’s poor.
“I know that Maryland has put a lot of money into support services like child care and after-school programs, but I would simply say that there are still a lot of poor children,” Meade said.
Hill added that some state welfare policies are simply not very generous. For instance, only the poorest families can qualify for welfare and other benefits because of extremely low income requirements, he said. Families hovering near the poverty line lack the support they need to build financial security.
Meanwhile, a restriction that puts child-support payments for children on welfare into state coffers means less money goes to directly help poor kids, Hill said.
Hill noted that some Maryland policies do aid the poor — including the refundable earned-income credit program for low-income families and the extension of welfare benefits past the 60-month federal time limit.
Maryland has used some of its TANF funds to support the increasing number of families dropping off welfare rolls and going to work, Larson said. Money has gone to funding after-school programs as well as initiatives that aim to prevent teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births and to promote two-parent families.
Larson said the state has the luxury of spreading money “into other things” because sharply falling welfare caseloads mean it does not have to spend so much money on cash assistance.
“We’ve been able to reinvest the money we spent on old programs in services so that people who are on welfare with children can go to work,” he said.
As Congress debates the reauthorization of welfare reform laws this year, it will have to decide whether to even the level of federal support between states like Texas and Maryland, said Sharon Parrott, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and one of the report’s authors.
“You could do a Robin Hood — take from the rich states and give to the poor ones — but nobody thinks that’s a good idea,” Parrott said. “(Congress is) not going help by taking money from the New Yorks and the Marylands and Connecticuts and reducing their block grants at all.
“The states at the very bottom . . . really need some more funds to bump them up,” she said.
Maryland officials hope Congress will continue to allow states flexibility when handling TANF funds and adjust the block grant for inflation so funding levels keep up with the cost of living, Larson said.