New Jersey Welfare Changes Aim to Cut Cycle Of Dependency


FORMER welfare recipient Shelly Delfino says she doesn't think any woman would have another baby just to get an extra $64 a month in welfare benefits. "That doesn't begin to cover the cost of caring for a child," she insists.

Ms. Delfino is talking about the most controversial part of New Jersey's radical new welfare reform law. Under the plan a woman would get benefits only for those children born before she went on public assistance.

Opinions are sharply divided here among clients and staff members at the North Hudson Community Action Corporation's Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food and nutrition program where Ms. Delfino works as a lactation specialist.

Client Priscilla Escalante, for instance, who says she expects to have her "first and last" child in July, says the new law may succeed in discouraging women on welfare from having "so many" babies. Yet Nicholas Armanz, here with his wife and daughter, says women who have more children while on welfare should get extra help at least for a certain time.

"I don't want to sound like a holy roller, but there comes a point where you want to encourage certain behavior and discourage other behavior," comments nutritionist James Leo, "and I don't know how else you can do it."

Democrat Wayne Bryant, the highest-ranking black in New Jersey's state Assembly, is the author of the new law. He is from Camden where almost half of all residents are on welfare. He hopes the law will bring a shift in values and make welfare recipients more responsible for their own decisions. In arguing his case recently before Congress and at the White House, he said his aim is to strengthen families and break the "cycle of dependency."

Mothers whose benefits would be capped under the new law could take jobs and earn up to an extra 50 percent of their monthly allowance with the help of day care and other subsidies.

Able-bodied welfare recipients whose children are two or older would have to take job training or go to school. That provision, which in essence is now part of most state programs and federal welfare law, has broad support.

New Jersey's new welfare law, signed and warmly embraced by Gov. James Florio, also would allow mothers to keep their benefits if they marry someone other than the father of the child so long as he is not earning over a certain amount. The assumption is that the natural father has already abdicated his financial responsibilities since the mother is on welfare.

"If you don't do something like this, you're encouraging women to remain single," says Delfino of the marriage provision. She says the measure would have helped her greatly because she was in that situation. She had four children from her first marriage when she married her present husband eight years ago. Both still feel the financial pinch from the abrupt loss of her welfare and Medicaid benefits.

The New Jersey law is scheduled to take effect July 1. Yet Washington first must provide waivers from certain federal regulations. President Bush has vowed to expedite the process, but some members of Congress want to delay it.

Even if the waivers are granted the new law may face court challenges. A coalition of church, civil rights, and women's groups may file one or more lawsuits. Martha Davis, a lawyer with the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense Fund, says legal problems include potential violation of one's right to make personal decisions, the inequity in allowing different rates of earned income to women (depending on whether and whom they marry), and the effect of capping benefits on the usual provision of be nefits according to need.

New Jersey is one of a handful of states that are considered on the cutting edge of welfare reform. The state action is a response both to rising welfare costs and to growing pressure from taxpayers to have recipients do more in return for aid.

Dr. Judith Geuron, president of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York, says many states are making major efforts to include education and training programs for welfare recipients.

Yet she and other key welfare experts agree that reforms aimed at changing personal behavior, such as how many children one has, have had little if any effect.

Still, such experiments as New Jersey's benefit cap may be worth trying for political reasons alone, says Lawrence Mead, a poverty expert with New York University.

"What frustrates the public is that welfare recipients appear to do so little to help themselves," he says. "They want to see greater activity. [Then] the public is more willing to help."

Even in work and training programs for welfare recipients, says Professor Mead, the most solid gain is the shift toward more activity rather than the effect on the pocketbook. Those obligated to participate make more of an effort on their own behalf. "They get out of the house," he says. "They change their lifestyles."

Yet the economic message from some of these experiments is mixed, says Ciro Scalera, executive director of the Association for Children of New Jersey. He says transitional services are key and that he doesn't think government has managed welfare reform well in that respect.

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