Baltimore’s Ambitious Plan to Reform Welfare

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Photo of Christopher and Melinda, who are participants in the new programs, via CFUF
Photo of Christopher and Melinda, who are participants in the new programs, via CFUF

Al Jazeera America has a nice, long piece up that takes a look at how current welfare policies are woefully outdated — and how Baltimore is instituting some exciting new plans that may make it on the cutting edge of re-imagining how social welfare policies might work in the twenty-first century.

The article tracks a Baltimore family who learned first-hand that the system isn’t exactly set up to support families. Married couples often qualify for lower-levels of assistance, for one. Another way the system fails is that it doesn’t take into account the many couples with children who are involved with each other, but not married–what social scientists call “fragile families.”

“The reason the system looks bizarre is because it was originally constructed around a conceptualization of who single moms were in 1974,” the director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Fathers, Children and Family Well-Being says. But these days, unmarried mothers are still in romantic partnerships with their children’s fathers. And under current child support policies, fathers often have their wages automatically docked; if they can’t pay, the missed payments accrue in arrears. If you owe too much, you could lose your professional license, or get your driver’s license suspended. Such programs are intended to protect mothers, but they often have the opposite effect, especially when fathers aren’t paying up not because they don’t feel like it, but because they actually can’t afford it. The penalties in place hurt the fathers, alienate them from their families, and can make it harder for them to get a job and help their families.

To get a full picture of Baltimore’s plans to rectify this frustrating situation, you really should read the Al Jazeera article. But the key takeaway is, policymakers are starting to realize that they have to help fathers — not just mothers — with job assistance programs, financial counseling, and other forms of support. It’s intriguing stuff.



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