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Massachusetts Seeks 60-Day Cap on Welfare Payments : Reform: Gov. Weld wants federal approval of plan forcing recipients to quickly find work or lose benefits. Proposal is much stricter than Clinton's.

April 30, 1994|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Under a plan much more radical than President Clinton's proposed two-year limit on welfare benefits, Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld hopes to force recipients in his state to go to work within 60 days of receiving their first public assistance checks.

As officials from dozens of states have done, Weld came to Washington on Friday hoping to get federal approval to enact his plan even before the Clinton Administration puts the final touches on its own welfare overhaul--a task expected to be completed by the end of May.

Rather than wait for federal action, Massachusetts and other states are coming to the Administration with their own blueprints for achieving the President's goal of "ending welfare as we know it." Massachusetts' version is just one of 20 initiatives now under review by the Administration.

Before states can enact new welfare programs, the federal government must grant waivers that temporarily allow them to circumvent current welfare law.

Since January, 1993, the Administration has approved such waivers for welfare experiments in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Others approved by the George Bush Administration are also being implemented.

All of the waivers have been given with the caveat that they will have to be renegotiated after federal reform is enacted.

"A lot of states are dissatisfied with their welfare systems and they want to get started now on something new," said Mary Jo Bane, an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services, who oversees the waiver approvals.

Although some of the new state programs include aspects of the Administration's evolving package, others are either more lenient or more stringent. Occasionally, the Administration has found itself in the awkward position of having to live up to Clinton's promise to give states flexibility in welfare reform, even when it is less than enthusiastic about some of the proposals.

One popular program among states, for example, called the family cap, denies additional cash benefits to mothers who have babies while receiving welfare payments. States favor the idea because it saves money but critics argue that it hurts children. The provision has been so controversial within the Administration that the decision on whether to include it in the federal reform plan has been left to the President.

Weld said he was encouraged after his meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. "She said they do approve waivers they don't necessarily agree with." Waiver approvals can take from a few months to a year, depending on the complexity of the proposal.

The Massachusetts plan would force able-bodied people to work by ending welfare payments after 60 days and eliminating the option of long-term dependency. If private-sector jobs cannot be found for welfare recipients, they will be offered community service work. Job training and education programs, a key aspect of the Administration's plan, would only be available to participants who also work at least 25 hours a week.

Weld's plan would exempt disabled adults, adults caring for disabled children or spouses, pregnant women in the third trimester, women who have given birth within the previous four months and teen-age parents attending secondary school full time.

The governor rejected the notion that his plan would hurt the children of parents who fail to participate.

"Ours is a more compassionate approach than the status quo," he said. "It's good for kids to see the single parents leaving the house every day to go to work."

Those who refuse to work, he said, would have to rely on friends, family or charity organizations--as they did before federal welfare programs were enacted. "We do not contemplate people on the (heating) grates," he said.

Some advocates have criticized the Administration for being too lenient in its waiver policy.

"Historically the federal government has ensured basic safeguards for poor families," said Mark Greenberg, senior attorney for the liberal Center for Law in Social Policy. "The federal government is no longer playing that role. It's allowing experimentation without regard for the reasonableness of the state proposal."

Most state programs are designed to promote work and self-sufficiency. While some attempt to do that through incentives, others are resorting to sanctions.

A Wisconsin program, for example, will enable the state to impose a two-year time limit for welfare benefits without guaranteeing jobs.

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