MA: reforming welfare reform - there is a humane alternative FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 6 May 1998 17:26:53 -0700 (PDT)


http://www.bostonphoenix.com:80/archive/features/98/04/02/EDITORIAL.html
FWD  Boston Phoenix editorial - April 209, 1998


     REFORMING WELFARE REFORM

     THERE IS A HUMANE ALTERNATIVE


The Cellucci administration is proudly trumpeting the fact that
Massachusetts's welfare caseload is at its lowest level in 24 years. Since
the state's sweeping welfare reform of 1995, 27,000 recipients have left
the rolls.

But what looks good in a press release isn't so pretty in real life.
(Doubters should read "On the Edge," our report on five families struggling
near the welfare line.) As welfare reform has kicked in, emergency shelters
and food banks have been reporting sharp increases in the number of people
seeking their help because they can no longer turn to the state. And as
two-year time limits on benefits expire, social services will be strained
even further.

According to human-services workers, today's welfare-reform success will
breed tomorrow's swollen underclass. While the state is indeed moving
people off welfare, it could do far more to help them stay off. Right now,
the state is giving welfare recipients a swift kick rather than a
jump-start, relegating all but the luckiest to the kinds of lives that
prompted the introduction of welfare 60 years ago.

It is possible to achieve welfare reform in a more humane way. In some
cases, improvements are just a legislative okay away. Here are some
suggestions for how Massachusetts can give people a ladder to climb out of
dependency and into self-sufficient lives -- with their dignity intact.

Count education toward work requirements. Education, which brings better
jobs at higher wages, is one of the surest escape routes from welfare. But
perversely, welfare reform has blocked educational opportunities for
thousands of recipients. By cutting off benefits after two years, the law
doesn't allow most people enough time to complete even a community-college
education. And for those recipients with school-age children, requirements
that they earn benefits through work, or by performing 20 hours of
community service a week, make education even harder to attain. Right now,
education and vocational training are not counted toward that 20 hours. A
bill to correct that has gone nowhere. The legislature should pass it into
law.

Reward grandparents for raising their children's children. Politicians
complain about the decline of "family values," but they haven't put their
votes where their rhetoric is. Relatives raising the children of parents
who are either unable or unwilling to care for their own kids now receive
only a third of the benefits provided to foster parents. A bill to give
grandparents parity is currently stalled in committee. One concern is cost,
but nobody has even bothered to figure out how many grandparents are
raising their grandchildren.

Expand health care benefits. Last year, Massachusetts expanded Medicaid
benefits to cover families living at 133 percent of poverty level ($21,000
per year for a family of four). That's a good start, but it doesn't go far
enough. A plan to expand Medicaid again -- to cover families living at
200 percent of poverty level ($32,000 for a family of four) -- is currently
stuck in the State House. Holding it up is Acting Governor Cellucci's
desire to charge parents earning between $21,000 and $32 perhaps a
compromise can be struck -- say, by setting the cap at $20. In the
interests of providing this state's children with basic health care, all
parties should bend a little. Reaching a deal would take care of just about
every child in this state. But it would still leave many poor single people
and childless couples without insurance. They too, deserve a second look.

Make emergency shelter more accessible. The state hasn't adjusted the
income level that determines eligibility for emergency shelter since 1986.
Right now, a family of four made homeless by eviction, domestic violence,
fire, or other crises must make less than $1235 a month to qualify for
emergency shelter. Homeless parents who buy into welfare reform and get
jobs often find themselves thrown out of shelters because, based on this
woefully outdated threshold, they suddenly earn too much. The income
guidelines must be revised. Massachusetts should also reinstate a rule it
abandoned three years ago, mandating that homeless people be placed in an
emergency shelter within a 20-mile radius of their home community.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters@phx.com.

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