WASHINGTON – Maryland welfare officials got a break last week when Congress left town without reauthorizing the federal welfare bill — a piece of legislation that both Democrats and Republicans agree will be more stringent than the original.
And tougher rules are the last thing the state needs.
Just 8.3 percent of the state’s welfare recipients in 2002 met a federal requirement that they spend at least 30 hours a week in welfare-to-work programs in exchange for their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families check.
That was one of the lowest compliance rates in the nation — only Georgia and Puerto Rico were lower — and well below the current federal standard of 50 percent participation.
And Congress is determined to raise the standards even higher when it takes up TANF reauthorization again in the spring. Both Republican and Democratic versions of the bill call for recipients to put in about 40 hours a week in welfare-to-work programs and for states to show at least a 70 percent compliance rate by 2008.
“It’s hard to imagine that Maryland could meet the requirements in proportion with federal laws,” said Steve Hill, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute.
But state officials said they will meet the new standards and they have already launched an initiative to help them do so.
“We’re confident both the House and the Senate will propose significant increases in hours,” said John Huegelmeyer, an administrator at the state’s Family Investment Administration. “And rather then wait and then have to scurry to achieve the goals, we’re ramping up now.”
The state began “ramping up” in September when it began its Universal Engagement program. It requires most TANF recipients, with some exemptions, to participate in some type of program for about 30 hours a week. That can be a TANF-approved “core activity,” like a job skills program, or a “non-core activity” such as getting admitted to a substance-abuse program.
The immediate goal is not to fulfill the federal mandates, Huegelmeyer said, but to get people in the habit of regularly participating in a program.
“It creates an atmosphere that you’re just not going to come down here and get a welfare check every month,” he said.
“Once the customer gets the idea that you have to follow one of the core activities or the non-core activities the message is quite clear. They’ll say, ‘I don’t need all of this for a check. I’m just going to get on with my life,'” Huegelmeyer said.
The state has not been penalized for its failure to meet TANF guidelines so far because it has been so successful at reducing its welfare rolls, earning it a credit from the federal government.
The number of people receiving cash assistance from the state fell from 227,887 in January 1995 — before Congress passed the welfare reform bill that created TANF — to 71,648 in June 2003, a 68.6 percent decrease in eight years.
That won the state a caseload reduction credit: Instead of a compliance rate of 50 percent, the federal government said Maryland only needed to have 6.2 percent of its TANF recipients spending 30 hours a week in a welfare-to-work program.
By comparison, more than 80 percent of TANF recipients in Montana and Wyoming met the 30-hour mandate. The average rate nationally is 33.4 percent, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said states like Maryland do not have an excuse for failing to live up to the original standard.
The states “are failing the taxpayer and the recipient,” said Rector, who helped craft the original welfare reform bill. “There’s no reason why more than half of the recipients should be idle.”
But Huegelmeyer defended Maryland’s performance, noting that the state played within the rules that TANF operated under at the time. The low participation rate is not a reflection of the state’s welfare system, he said, but a reflection of the fact that goals were simply different at the outset of welfare reform.
“Maryland was focused on encouraging applicants to look for a job,” he said.
Now, the focus has changed, he said. And if the federal government wants more recipients in welfare-to-work programs, Maryland is ready to comply.
“We’re going to meet whatever the government tells us we have to meet,” he said.