Howard County's welfare rolls are growing as poor urban residents move from Baltimore and other jurisdictions in search of a better life -- but not to the degree that numbers from the state's new bug-ridden computer system would suggest.
According to those numbers, Howard County supposedly had a 32 percent increase in recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the nation's primary welfare program, from February 1994 to February 1995.
But the state's new computer system, which went into effect in Howard in November, apparently counted every member of a household in which someone receives AFDC, instead of just the recipients, said Sharon Haynie, an assistant director for the state Department of Human Resources.
Although Howard's AFDC rolls continue to grow, state officials and academic analysts say, the actual increases are around 10 percent to 12 percent a year, which is about what they have come to expect in the growing county.
Word that the state's most recent figures were inflated came as no surprise to welfare analysts, economic experts and county officials who were skeptical of an apparent boom in AFDC in one of the wealthiest counties in the state and the nation.
"We've been sort of looking at the numbers with tongue in cheek because we're not sure what they mean," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "We're sort of waiting . . . to see whether they're going to correct the numbers."
Added Anirban Basu, an economist with the Regional Economic Studies Program at the University of Baltimore: "It is a kind of peculiar phenomenon."
The state's new, $100 million data collection system, called the Client Information System, already has been criticized for inaccurate accounting, late child support and welfare checks, and other problems.
The system is being phased in throughout the state in a process that will be completed in every county by this fall. In the Baltimore metropolitan region, only Howard, Carroll and Harford counties have gone on-line with the system so far.
The inflated welfare numbers in Howard were discovered after other problems with the computer system came to light in Montgomery County earlier this year.
At first experts attributed Howard's unexpected AFDC growth to a decade-long trend of the poor following the middle class to the suburbs. But when they looked closely, they realized that the counts had been inflated by the new computer system.
Haynie said that instead of simply counting individual
welfare recipients, as did the old system, the new system is counting each member of a household where at least one AFDC check is paid. For example, a grandparent who cares for two children might also be counted in a household where only the children are AFDC recipients.
What was thought to be a dramatic increase in Howard is "more a function of how the new system counts recipients than a phenomenal growth in Howard County," she said. "I think we have somewhat an apples and oranges situation here."
At this point, state officials are looking at the system to see how they can come up with a more accurate way of collecting AFDC data.
Still, state and local officials say that Howard's welfare caseload continues to grow somewhat, just not at the pace the new computer system had suggested.
Since the mid-1980s, for example, the total number of AFDC cases has increased by a steady 10 percent to 12 percent annually, according to the state and University of Baltimore analysts. From January 1982 to October 1994, Howard County's AFDC caseload increased 149 percent, from 353 cases to 882.
The average AFDC case represents about three welfare recipients.
Howard's overall caseload remains relatively small compared with Baltimore City (almost 38,000 cases), Baltimore County (about 7,200 cases) and Prince George's County (about 12,000 cases).
Yet even the more conservative estimates have officials concerned in a county that boasts one of the most robust economies in the state and where the low-income population totals about 6,000, or just 3 percent, the lowest in the state.
"We see the [AFDC] rolls increasing," said Sam Marshall, director of the county Department of Social Services. "We're looking at it, and we're trying to analyze it because this isn't the cheapest place to live."
Mr. Basu speculated that more of the poor are moving to Howard from Baltimore City and Prince George's County to take advantage of better schools and better-paying jobs.
From 1970 to 1990, he noted, the population in Baltimore dropped by 200,000 to about 700,000 residents. The city's AFDC caseload also declined, peaking at 43,064 in 1985 and now standing at 37,737 cases.
Mr. Basu says Baltimore's population continues to decline. And the exodus from the city is bolstering the suburban populations by the tens of thousands. "The middle class have always left the city for the suburban counties," he said. "What is somewhat newer is the lower class and lower middle class fleeing the city. And it's quite obvious some are moving to Howard County."