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Maryland May Tie Welfare to 'Responsible Behaviors'

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By Deborah L. Cohen

Welfare recipients in Maryland would not receive their full grants unless they could document that they are getting preventive health care, keeping their children in school, and paying their rent, under a plan announced last month.

The proposal, which must still be approved by the federal government, would cover a wider range of issues and larger numbers of recipients than previous state efforts to use welfare benefits to influence behavior, experts say.

Wisconsin, for example, has gained national attention with its "Learnfare" program--a demonstration project linking welfare benefits to school attendance-and other states have experimented with similar models.

The Maryland plan, which was spearheaded by Secretary of Human Resources Carolyn Colvin, would reduce welfare grants provided under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program by 30 percent. As a result, the average payment for a family of three would fall from $377 to $264 a month.

Families who could demonstrate the so-called "responsible behaviors," however, would receive "special needs" funds allowing them to recover some or all of the lost grant money.

The plan, which would cover welfare recipients throughout the state, is scheduled to take effect in July. Welfare 'Social Contract'

Details of how families are to document their efforts and how the state will monitor them have yet to be fleshed out.

But the "broad concept is based on a notion that government ought to have certain expectations of the people who receive public welfare benefits," said Timothy W. Griffith, the executive director of the income-maintenance administration for the human-resources department.

Besides encouraging school attendance and seeing that families who do not get publicly subsidized housing pay rent, the state wants to ensure that families take advantage of immunization and screening programs for young children that can reduce the risk of more costly medical treatment, Mr. Griffith said.

"It's a new way of looking at the social contract" between government and welfare clients, he said.

But some welfare advocates fear the plan would adversely affect families already struggling to make ends meet under their basic grants.

"Clearly, there are going to be some dire consequences for children given that $377 for a room with two kids is already a very low amount to pay rent, let alone pay rent on time ," said Lynda Meade, a spokesman for the Maryland Alliance for the Poor. "In an absolute ideal world, no one would be cut--but, in the real world, children will suffer."

The plan also could bog down "an already overworked [social-services] staff' with record-keeping responsibilities, Ms. Meade warned.

Verifying student attendance and clarifying the reasons for absences, for example, initially posed problems for Wisconsin's Learnfare.

"We're not looking to be draconian about this; we just want to send a message," Mr. Griffith said.

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