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My plea to the Massachusetts Legislature: don't hurt kids as you reform welfare

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  November 18, 2013 08:21 AM

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welfare.jpgHere in Massachusetts, our House and Senate are in the thick of figuring out a welfare reform bill. A version was passed in both the House and Senate, and they are working out their compromises as I write this--it may even have been worked out.

I'm nervous.

I'm all for being sure that taxpayer money is spent wisely. There's just not enough money for any to be wasted. We want to do everything we can to be sure that the people who are getting benefits really need them, and that we fight fraud and get people back to self-sufficiency as soon as possible.

But as we make changes and reforms to reach this worthy goal, there's something really important to remember: there are children involved.

Thousands of children in Massachusetts rely on welfare benefits for their food, housing, heat and clothes and other basic needs. Their families rely on that money for day-to-day survival.

We don't know what the final bill will look like--or if it will pass. But in reading about what's been discussed, here are some parts that worry me and others who care for poor families:

  • Work requirements should be reasonable and fair for parents with disabilities. Anyone who can work should work, plain and simple. But many parents with disabilities can't--and the way the bills are written now leaves things very vague in a way that could put many families at risk of losing their benefits. It needs to be clear, and it needs to make medical sense.
  • Job search requirements should make sense. Of course people should look for a job. And given how little welfare actually pays, most people I talk to would way rather have a job than be on welfare. But it can take time to look for a job--and you need childcare, and a way to get to interviews. Not that people can't figure this stuff out. But we need to be realistic and fair with families. 
  • Rules for reapplying for welfare should make sense too. If people need to reapply for benefits after being off them, we should look at their current situation, not their situation when they were on benefits before. Things change. That's why they are reapplying.
  • Education and training are crucial. That's how people get off of welfare, so it's a worthwhile investment. Which is why...
  • Getting a college education should count for something. It can be a family's ticket out of poverty--and off of benefits--forever. Yes, lots of people work while they are in school--but when you have kids, that gets harder. It will cost us less in the long run if we support poor parents while they get a degree.
  • We shouldn't make pregnant women work longer than is safe. Both versions of the bill are a bit unclear as to how long a pregnant woman has to work. That should be very clear--and ultimately decided by the woman's doctor.
  • The families of legal immigrants need somewhere to live too. There are provisions that could stop some lawful immigrants from applying for public housing. These are people who have played by the immigration rules--we should play fair too.
It's easy to say, and mostly true, that we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps--but we need boots first. And whatever your stance is on bootstraps, it's our responsibility to keep our children safe and well.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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