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Alabama Welfare Plan: Making Do With Less

New block grants could shrink federal funding in South

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IN a cluttered room of an old high-rise here, Kimble Forrister and staff are trying to shape welfare reform in this Deep South state. Gathered in front of a blackboard, they pore over ideas culled from more than 20 meetings conducted this year with Alabama's poor.

Mr. Forrister, director of Alabama Arise, an advocacy group of 92 religious, social, and civic organizations, and the handful of adults here hope to sway how the state Legislature reforms welfare. But while the group relishes the opportunity to have a say in the process, it's concerned the state won't invest enough in helping recipients become self-sufficient.

The group's concerns center around the issue of block grants - limited lump-sum payments Congress plans to give to the states that would replace an array of federal antipoverty programs. Both the House and Senate have passed separate bills that would give states wide flexibility to design their own programs.

Many lawmakers see block grants as a way to cut out bureaucracy. "The local government is best suited to taking care of local needs and will cut out a lot of overhead, a lot of waste," says Michael Ciamarra, policy adviser to Alabama Governor Fob James (R).

Yet, while it is still too early to tell how states will be affected, some observers contend that welfare recipients in poor southern states like Alabama may be affected most adversely by the changes because of their past spending on welfare and their conservative leadership.

"In conservative Southern states welfare is seen as a necessary evil," says Joel Sanders, director of welfare reform for the Alabama Department of Human Resources. "States like Alabama that never raised its welfare spending very high are about to drag that legacy into the future through the block grant."

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