A stripped-down 1986 Plymouth Reliant with roughly 100,000 miles on it could speed Deborah Wright off government assistance.
The four-door sedan is one of dozens from Anne Arundel County's fleet that the Department of Social Services will offer in a new program aimed at getting people off public aid by providing them with reliable transportation to jobs.
Called Wheels for Work, the initiative is the first of its kind in the state. Officials at the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees local welfare programs, are urging other counties to follow the Arundel example, said J. C. Shay, a department spokesman.
The program, an idea of Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary that was set in motion last week, will provide about 85 cars a year from the public and private sector to welfare recipients who cannot afford cab fare or find bus routes that get them to a job. The cars are made available for $200.
The program uses vehicles that have been retired from the county's fleet of 400 cars and trucks after they are 6 years old or have been driven 100,000 miles and vehicles donated by citizens.
The department will match people eligible for the cars with local nonprofit groups that will handle the details.
Ms. Wright, 39, who is raising two chil- dren by herself at College Creek Terrace in Annapolis, said she doesn't care what a car looks like, "just as long as it gets me from Point A to Point B."
"I really want to work," she said. "It's the transportation that always ends up being a problem for me."
The cost of the program is unclear. The county usually sells its old vehicles to the highest bidder at public auction for about $500 each. Part of that money would be lost under the new program, along with an additional $600 per vehicle in minor repairs, excise taxes and title transfers.
But department officials contend that the program eventually will save money because it will take people off welfare and put them in jobs.
"We had one individual who received three job offers, and the highest-paying one required a vehicle to get to work," said Edward R. Bloom, county social services director. "She had to accept the lowest wage of the three."
Transportation was second only to child care as the biggest barrier keeping county welfare recipients from jobs, a department survey found.
According to 1990 Census figures, 98 percent of working adults in Anne Arundel County drive to work. That demonstrates another point about the car program: It will enable welfare recipients to become part of the mainstream work culture.
"As we try to move people into employment, we try very much to remove the stigma of welfare," Mr. Bloom said.
He said he is urging the state to build more flexibility into the federal block grant program so that the county will have more money for programs such as Wheels to Work.
Nationally, welfare eligibility is being linked increasingly to the search for jobs. Federal changes that are in the works are likely to require families to obtain full-time employment within two years of receiving cash benefits. In September, the county began requiring welfare applicants to spend four weeks looking for work.
The transportation program already is winning fans in the county. After providing one car last week to a single mother from Severna Park, county social workers are eager to get the second car to Ms. Wright, who is studying for her driver's test.
She gave up a job as a nursing assistant at Annapolis Convalescent Home last year, in part because the $10.80 a day she spent in cab fares to get to work and back ate too big a hole in her salary of $54.40 a day.
If she took a bus, which was impossible when she worked the night shift, she often spent two extra hours commuting.
Now, Ms. Wright works part time at the Value City store in Parole because it is on a bus route near her home.
She plans to find a nursing job beyond the bus route once she gets her car, she said. And she is hoping the car will improve life for her children. Her sons, Montay, 10, and Terrell, 9, could not play the drums and trumpet in an elementary school orchestra and had to give up Boy Scouts because she had no way of getting them to the after-school activities.
"Having this driver's license will get me and my family to where we want to be," Ms. Wright said. "I just feel so much hope."