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Despair for Families

March 09, 1986

Family is a sacred word to people in the Reagan Administration. For them, it means two parents and self-sufficiency. For many poor households, family means something less. White House officials say that they want to change that, but one idea under study, a ceiling on federal benefits, could punish the sickest and most vulnerable American families. It could force hard choices between food, shelter, medical care and other necessities.

The ceiling would limit the total value of welfare payments, food stamps, housing subsidies, medical help and other federal assistance to the dollar amount of the poverty level--for example, $8,570 yearly for a mother and two children.

Who now receives benefits greater than the poverty level? Senior citizens and families with exorbitant medical bills? Families that live in cities, like Los Angeles, where rents are high and the wait for public housing can last for years? Are many families really receiving help that they don't need?

Government officials don't know. Without statistics, White House officials cannot determine whether a limit will save millions or much of anything.

One thing is obvious: A national cap would penalize poor families that live in states providing more generous benefits because those families face greater expenses.

In California a family of three qualifies for monthly welfare payments of $587 and a food stamp allotment of $106, according to a recent report by the House Ways and Means Committee. That adds up to $8,316 yearly. Subtract that from the federal poverty level of $8,570, and not much is left for anything else.

The sky shouldn't be the limit on federal benefits, and it isn't. Changes are in order, but the national debate should produce positive and pragmatic incentives, not punishment.

There are other ways. Here, for example, a conservative proposes an "enterprise allowance" that would allow welfare recipients who become self-employed to receive benefits during that critical first year of business. There, a liberal suggests a "work allowance" that would allow welfare recipients who earn money--say, $150 a month--to keep half of it instead of losing all of it.

A national cap on federal assistance, although intended to push poor families toward self-sufficiency, could push them toward despair. There is nothing sacred about that approach to family.

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