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Welfare Panel Insists On 2-Year Limit But Teen Mothers Would Get A Slight Break Under Proposed Reforms

Architects of Idaho’s welfare reform plan decided Monday to stick with a 24-month limit for cash welfare benefits but added a break for teenage moms.

The two-year clock wouldn’t start ticking for teenage moms until they turn 18 - or 19 if they still are finishing high school.

An earlier motion to raise the welfare time limit to 30 months died on a tie vote by members of the Governor’s Welfare Reform Advisory Council. Their proposal to remake Idaho’s welfare system goes next to Gov. Phil Batt, who plans to propose legislation in January.

The time limit on welfare payments was the most controversial of the council’s 42 recommendations at public hearings around Idaho. That limit would include payments received in other states.

Council members had been impressed by teenage mothers who spoke up at a Pocatello hearing. They told the council 24 months isn’t enough time for them to finish high school, let alone become self-sufficient.

The change for teen moms also matches anticipated federal legislation, said Karen McGee, a Pocatello city councilwoman who heads the welfare reform council. “If they’re living at home, they’re completing high school and they’re trying to raise a child, they should have the full two years (afterward) to get on their feet,” McGee said.

The plan also would require all welfare recipients to work, finish high school or learn basic job skills; it would provide child care; and it would make grandparents on both sides financially responsible for their minor children’s babies. Unmarried teen parents wouldn’t qualify for welfare unless they lived with their parents and the whole family qualified. Extra payments for additional children would end.

Under the new system, each recipient would sign a contract to take specific steps toward self-sufficiency.

Some council members worried that two years might not be enough time for welfare parents to learn needed job skills. Since the current system provides unlimited benefits and little job training, the council members had no data to tell them whether 24 months, 30 months, or more, would be enough time.

“I think we erred on the side of being extremely conservative without any data to back that up,” said member Jim Owens.

Member Blake Hall noted that Gov. Batt asked the council to create a plan that costs no more than benefits now paid out by Idaho.

“He did mention it more than once,” agreed McGee.

The council’s 42-piece plan, according to Health and Welfare estimates, comes close to meeting that test.

McGee said that’s because it cuts deeply into such areas as long-term cash payments in order to fund the council’s priorities: child care, medical coverage and job training.

“This is why I’m sticking with 24 months: I want the money to go into child care,” McGee said.

The plan calls for child care and medical benefits to continue for one more year after the 24 months of cash payments.

Council member Steve Ahrens pushed for raising the 24-month limit to 30 months.”I’m concerned that creating a two-year time limit is not realistic, even if philosophically we agree with it,” he said.

But raising the limit on cash assistance to 30 months would have added $1 million to the cost of the program in its third year and another half-million every year thereafter.

Other changes the council made Monday included these:

Any public employee who fails to pay child support or allow visitation could face disciplinary action or firing. The plan already called for suspending driving, hunting, fishing and professional licenses for those who don’t pay or don’t allow visitation. On Monday, the council added teaching certificates to the list of possible suspensions.

Requiring monitoring to see how successful the program is in moving recipients toward self-sufficiency.

Allowing payments to pregnant women with no other children in cases of documented medical necessity.

, DataTimes

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