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Maryland Will Penalize Welfare Families for Truancy

December 25, 1992

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Maryland next month will begin docking the welfare benefits of families whose children skip school or don’t get proper medical care.

State officials say the policy is designed to break the cycle of poverty. Advocates for the poor complain it merely punishes families.

The federal government gave Maryland permission last spring to cut welfare payments by $25 for each preschool-age child who doesn’t get preventive health care, such as shots for measles and polio. An additional $25 will be cut for each older child who doesn’t attend school at least 80 percent of the time.

Pregnant women on welfare who receive prenatal care will get a bonus of $14 a month, while families who get annual medical checkups will be given an extra $20 a year.

About 80,000 Maryland families receive welfare, also known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Recipients of the federal-state aid began receiving notices last week informing them the cuts go into effect in January.

″Ultimately, this is for the child,″ said Helen Szablya, spokeswoman for the Human Resources Department. ″A healthy child can learn better. A child in school can learn better. And a child that learns has a better shot in life.″

She added, ″We are determined to break the poverty cycle.″

Advocates for the poor complain it offers no real hope of achieving its goals.

″The tragedy of this approach is that it’s trying to cure some serious problems that you cannot cure by punishing these very low-income families,″ said Arloc Sherman, program associate for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington. ″These problems are larger than the welfare system.″

Truancy and lack of access to health care are problems even among many middle-class families, he said.

Critics also note that welfare benefits have already been cut. In September, the monthly payment for a family of three went from $377 to $359. And an increase to $401 that was to go into effect Jan. 1 was postponed indefinitely.

Lynda Meade of Associated Catholic Charities in Baltimore said most welfare families will probably be able to meet the new requirements. ″It doesn’t do anything, except it does punish already dysfunctional families,″ she said.

Wisconsin already cuts the welfare benefits of families with truant children. It hasn’t succeeded in increasing attendance, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin that was rejected by Wisconsin officials.

An unmarried mother living in a homeless shelter with her two children, ages 5 and 14 months, said that she has gotten all the required shots for her 5-year-old and expects soon to have the younger child fully immunized.

The woman, who gave her name only as Miriam, said the new requirements ″weren’t a big problem. My problem is finding housing now. It’s hard to get an apartment with what I’m getting. Even before they cut it, it was hard.″

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