Welfare reform at the grassroots Flexibility is key to new program that stresses jobs over handouts.


ANNE ARUNDEL County is on the cutting edge of one of the most pressing national issues, welfare reform. The Department of Social Services, mainly a check-dispensing service not so long ago, now focuses on employment and empowerment. In the last two months, one-third of applicants for Aid to Families with Dependent Children found jobs. The key word here is flexibility. Local caseworkers have been tailoring assistance to an individual family's needs instead of handing out money based on rigid formulas.

In July 1994, the county started the Community-Directed Assistance Program (C-DAP), which matches community sponsors with families interested in an alternative to traditional welfare. Instead of federal AFDC money, which comes with strict rules about how it can be spent, the program uses county and state funds, to be dispersed as the sponsors deem necessary for each family's needs over a six-month period. At the end of that half-year, families are supposed to be self-sufficient. So far, each one that has participated in the program has achieved that goal.

C-DAP is fairly limited in scope, due to the shortage of sponsors. But a new job search requirement begun in September requires every applicant to look for work before receiving welfare benefits. The effort is paying off. "People are getting multiple offers," says Vesta Kimble, deputy director of Social Services. Starting in January, AFDC applicants will go through a new Job Center in Annapolis, where they will get a welfare check only as a last resort. An on-site day care center will free them to look for work, caseworkers will help them collect child support, and GED training and adult education will be available. A $50,000 federal grant will be used to help families handle short-term emergencies, such as car repairs, that otherwise might cost them a job.

The success of these reform initiatives shows that local governments can change welfare from a lifestyle to a steppingstone to self-sufficiency -- if they have the freedom to tailor the use of funds to individual circumstances. The federal government has not allowed that in the past. The states, soon to take over the job of disbursing welfare money, cannot afford to repeat that mistake.

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