Misery grows as help shrinks


It is Wednesday, and the welfare office in the old Sears building on North Avenue is nearly empty. Social workers, you see, reserve Wednesdays to catch up on their paperwork.

These days, there is an awful lot of paperwork to catch up on.

"It definitely is getting worse out there," said Doris Johnson, an intake counselor for the Baltimore Department of Social Services. "More people are coming in. More people are having emergencies. We are seeing more people who can't find jobs because of drugs or alcoholism or because they are having babies.

"And I'll tell you one more thing," Johnson continued sadly, "they are getting younger and younger. I'm seeing people 13, 14, 15 years old seeking help."

Over the past 18 months, state officials say, Maryland's welfare rolls grew by 15 percent. That's nearly 9,200 new families in less than two years and there is no end in sight.

We are in the midst of an explosion of economic misery.

Desperation is epidemic.

"A lot of the new families we see actually worked within the past six months," said Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources.

"People are going directly from being employed to being on welfare. The old infrastructure that would have cushioned them -- unemployment, assistance from the unions -- just isn't there anymore." Restrictions on unemployment compensation are greater and coverage has been shortened, she said.

All of this has spawned a tragic irony: On April Fool's Day, Maryland proposes to cut welfare benefits for the first time in state history.

The state is proposing this, in part, because it does not have the money to accommodate the dramatic increase in those seeking help.

Thus, state officials announced Monday that some 75,000 recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children grants and 23,000 recipients of General Public Assistance grants could lose an average of about $10 a month beginning April 1.

For some, that loss would be offset by a $3-a-month increase in their food stamps from the federal government. But the cuts will hurt.

"You've got to understand that the benefits were very inadequate before the cuts," said Kevin Appleby, of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

"Before the cuts, the maximum benefits for a family of three was about 34 percent below the state's own 'standard of need,' " Appleby said. "And the state's standard of need was about $1,000 a year below the federal poverty level."

"When you subtract food stamps and housing costs, the typical family of four is forced to get by on about $10 a day," Appleby said. "That's $10 a day for clothing, utilities, phone, transportation and other expenses. What family can live on that?"

Appleby noted that the state and federal governments already have cut a number of benefits to the poor and elderly recently and that state officials have warned that more cuts may be in the offing.

"Seeing as how Governor Schaefer is thinking about flying off to Kuwait, we're calling this proposal the 'Mother of all cuts,' " Appleby said.

The mother of all cuts.

Good description.

"To see how much this hurts people, you've got to forget about all of the myths that people on welfare have got it made, mothers rolling up in Cadillacs to pick up their checks," said Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Social Services.

"The majority of people on welfare work themselves off just as quickly as they can," Fitzsimmons said. "The painful thing is that for many, something keeps happening and they fall back in."

There was some debate over whether the state was serious about a $10-a-month cut April 1. Some speculated that Gov. William Donald Schaefer was trying to pressure the legislature to raise taxes.

Keep in mind, though, that the governor -- who lives in a fine mansion paid for by the state and furnished by philanthropists -- has just received a handsome $35,000 pay raise. Members of his Cabinet and other top state officials just received raises ranging from 4 to 56 percent.

So, taking $10 a month from the poor probably won't seem like that big a deal to them.

All things considered, though, it would be.

All things considered, this would be the mother of all cuts. And, except at the very top levels of state government, people are getting increasingly desperate. There is an epidemic of misery.

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