Holding up the safety net


A point stated here before deserves repeating: For all its affluence, its amenities, its excellent schools, Howard County is not immune to the social ills that afflict less prosperous jurisdictions.

Since early in the recession, the county has seen marked increases in various categories of woe: Greater unemployment. More recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. More residents on food stamps and General Public Assistance. Homeless people turned away from shelters. More children eligible for free or reduced-price meals at public schools.

For the "old poor," bad conditions have worsened. The economic slump of the early 1990s also has put many working- and middle-class people out of work for the first time in their lives. They've joined the ranks of the "new poor."

Combine this explosion of need with major reductions in funding of public assistance programs, and the result is a social services crisis.

Thank heaven, then, for the local religious organizations that have taken on an increasingly large role in providing such services.

As The Evening Sun's Jackie Powder recently reported, the number of county congregations in Churches Concerned for the Homeless has gone from eight to 30 in three years. The Salvation Army opened a permanent county office in 1991. And last June, the Caring for the Needy Ministry became the newest of the numerous local religious groups that offer assistance whenever other private and public social aid programs are tapped out -- and in a compassionate manner not always found at public agencies.

Officials of the religious groups purport to answer to a higher authority, but that doesn't mean they have their heads in the clouds. One of their key strengths is that they understand a bed for a night or a few days' worth of food, while needed, is only a temporary cure.

So they work to help clients break bad habits. They show them how to make and maintain a household budget, how to look after their health and their children's health, how to become self-supporting.

The sad underside to all this laudable work is that it's made necessary by the growing misery of many county residents. But the religious leaders know they wouldn't be true to their calling if they didn't do all they could to keep the social safety net from falling.

Thank heaven they do just that.

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