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Advisory Panel Would Make Poor Work For Welfare Council Offers Tough Proposals For Overhauling Idaho System

Idahoans don’t want welfare to be a handout.

That’s what the Governor’s Welfare Reform Advisory Council learned after traveling to hearings around the state. So they’ve devised a tough new welfare system that will force welfare parents to take responsibility for themselves and their families.

“We’re going to make it like the real world,” said Karen McGee, a Pocatello city councilwoman and the advisory council’s chairwoman.

The council has come up with 42 recommendations for overhauling Idaho’s welfare system. Many are right in line with reform proposals being worked out in Congress. Some go further.

Changes would be drastic. They include:

No one could get more than 24 months of welfare payments - including payments received in other states.

All recipients would work, receive on-the-job training, earn a GED or learn basic job skills. College wouldn’t count. Mothers would start working 12 weeks after giving birth. Child care and health benefits would be provided.

Grandparents on both sides would be financially responsible for their minor children’s babies until the parents turn 18. Unmarried teen parents must live with their own parents to receive benefits, and the whole family, including the grandparents, must be eligible.

Idaho would have a one-size-fits-all family payment, regardless of family size. That matches the real world, McGee said. “I can’t go to my boss and say, ‘gosh, I’m pregnant, I need a raise.’ That is something everyone has to budget for.”

Parents who fail to pay child support or to allow visitation by the other parent would have driver’s, professional, concealed weapon and hunting and fishing licenses suspended. Names would be published. Non-payment of support by an elected official would be considered malfeasance of office.

Mothers must identify the child’s father to qualify for benefits.

The full list of recommendations will be available to the public next week at every state Health and Welfare Department office. Public hearings across the state will start Oct. 4 in Nampa and will include an Oct. 17 hearing in Coeur d’Alene.

After the hearings, the recommendations will be fine-tuned and then presented to Gov. Phil Batt by Dec. 1. Batt wants to propose legislation in January.

“We’re changing the nature of welfare from a lifestyle to temporary emergency assistance,” said Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Hayden, a council member. “You’re going to see a more results-oriented welfare system in this state in the next few years, one that carries with it consequences for actions and self-reliance, which is something that’s been missing.”

Idaho couldn’t have made these changes before. Federal rules stood in the way.

But welfare reform legislation now being finalized in Congress gives states broad flexibility as to how they’ll structure their welfare programs.

“Our timing couldn’t have been better,” said Judy Brooks, administrator of state welfare programs.

Among the federal strings that will be cut: The rule that welfare is almost exclusively for single-parent families.

“We were actually encouraging people not to live together and not to be married because they got better benefits,” McGee said. Under the new system the council designed, she said, “We’re trying to reward couples, trying to reward the family.”

The focus on families extends further. Teenage boys who father children will have increased responsibility, as will their parents.

“If you create a child, this becomes a family, this becomes a lifetime commitment,” McGee said.

Brooks noted that parents already are financially responsible for most of their children’s actions. “If they go out and break a bunch of car windows, the parents are responsible. This is just another type of responsibility.”

The federal legislation includes some stiff requirements for states, but the requirements generally match the way Idaho is heading. For example, both House and Senate legislation require 90 percent of the fathers of welfare children to be named, or states face penalties. Only 28 percent of Idaho’s welfare cases now have paternity established.

Idaho’s new plan not only requires mothers to name the fathers to get benefits, it also calls for a simpler process to establish paternity that wouldn’t require going to court.

The federal legislation has a five-year lifetime limit for welfare. Idaho’s plan has a two-year limit. Child care and health benefits would continue for one additional year.

The U.S. House and Senate bills also require 50 percent of recipients to be working by about the year 2000. Only 10.5 percent of Idaho recipients work now. Idaho’s plan calls for all recipients to work, with only narrow exceptions.

That work could be a regular paid job, on-the-job training, or community service. Recipients could also earn high school equivalency certificates or learn basic job skills. But the focus is to get them working as quickly as possible.

McGee acknowledges that the plan won’t save money in the short term, because of child-care costs and the cost to retool the system. But she thinks it will save money down the road.

Idaho’s welfare costs have been relatively low, since only 2 percent of Idahoans are on welfare, the lowest in the nation.

But, Brooks said, “Caseloads are growing.”

“There’s a lot of anger out there over people receiving benefits without having to earn them.”

, DataTimes

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