With an eye toward expected federal welfare cutbacks, Anne Arundel County has become the first jurisdiction in Maryland to encourage would-be welfare recipients to apply for jobs instead of benefits.
For more than a month, case workers in Annapolis and Glen Burnie have counseled potential applicants about the benefits of work over welfare and, in many cases, provided child care while they looked for employment. Starting in January, the county will channel everyone through a $500,000 "jobs center," where they will find job listings, phone banks and help polishing their resumes.
Already, the county has placed 76 of the 311 welfare applicants in jobs.
The Anne Arundel experiment is being watched closely elsewhere in the state. Congress is expected to pass legislation requiring recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children to find jobs within two years and limiting lifetime cash benefits to five years. For states to cope with the funding cutbacks, they must find new ways to put welfare recipients in jobs and to help applicants avoid public assistance entirely.
Within a year, Baltimore City and the state's 22 other counties must have similar "upfront job search" programs in place. Social services officials from Baltimore, Prince George's and Frederick counties will travel to Annapolis today to inspect Anne Arundel's program.
"This is the wave of the future," said Charlene Gallion, director of Project Independence, the state's 6-year-old welfare-to-work program.
Most applicants for benefits would rather work, said Joyce Lynch, co-manager of Anne Arundel's program. Usually lack of support systems -- whether transportation or child care -- has prevented them either from finding work or keeping it.
Many advocates hope the federal reforms will let the counties shift money they pay in cash benefits into day care programs and other assistance, such as emergency car repairs, needed to keep people employed.
"The way the system was set up in the past it didn't try to help people," said Susan Levitan, a professor at the University of Maryland law school. "These people have no support systems. When they get sick, they have no one to take care of them, and they lose their jobs. When they lose their day care, they lose their jobs."
Child care was the biggest obstacle between Shannon McCray, a former school secretary in Prince George's County, and a job.
With four children at home, "It's not always easy to come up with fTC the money to pay a baby sitter even for an hour or two while you go to an interview," said Mrs. McCray, who separated from her husband last summer.
With the county providing child care, Mrs. McCray, 26, of Lothian found a data entry job within a week earning $6.50 an hour. The county also is helping her pursue child support.
"It's not exactly what I'm used to making," she said. "If they weren't offering day care . . . I wouldn't have been able to accept the job."
The county guarantees child care for 30 days while applicants are job hunting, but not everyone qualifies once they are employed.
With or without day care, nearly every applicant will be better off in a job, said Vesta Kimble, deputy director of the county's social services agency. A single-parent family with two children could expect only $727 a month in cash benefits and food stamps, Ms. Kimble said.
But a parent earning as little as $4.75 an hour -- and receiving some food stamp assistance but no cash benefits -- could bring home $1,208 a month if the family also takes advantage of tax credits for the working poor.
"What we're telling them is, 'Any job is a good first job,' " Ms. Kimble said.
Angela Youngren agrees. She has bounced on and off public assistance since she became pregnant with her only child three years ago. She has swung from one dead-end job to another. She tried stints as a cashier on the night shift at a convenience store and delivering newspapers. But her car either broke down or her hours interfered with care of her daughter.
The Annapolis woman, now 25, returned to social services this fall hoping to qualify for career training through the state's welfare-to-work program. But case workers encouraged her not to give up. A couple of weeks later, Farmers Bank of Maryland hired her as a teller. Her convenience store experience was the difference.
"It's definitely the career I was looking for," she said. "I guess I didn't give myself any credit. I was wrong. I just needed to go in and apply, and it worked."
Since Anne Arundel began its "upfront job search" Sept. 20, 76 AFDC applicants have found jobs as nursing assistants, cooks, maids and sales clerks. Another 235 are still looking.
Not everyone will find a job, Ms. Kimble said. The frail elderly, sick and disabled are exempt from the rule. Others may lack basic skills. And, in some areas, there simply may not be jobs available.
"Anne Arundel County has jobs," she said. "They may not be glamorous jobs. They may not be top-of-the-line jobs, but, if we get someone into a job and provide her with day care, she can take care of her family much better than AFDC can."