Welfare advocates yesterday applauded many of the goals of Parris N. Glendening's proposal to overhaul Maryland's welfare system, but raised questions about whether the program could achieve its objective of putting people back to work.
The governor's proposal would set a five-year lifetime limit on cash payments to the poor and require recipients to find work in two years, or else be placed by the state into community service jobs.
Under the plan, local social service offices would be given the flexibility to design their own programs to help put welfare recipients in jobs. People could receive help with child care and health care or even transportation to a job, but receive cash payments only as a last resort.
The program is geared toward meeting the requirements the federal government is ultimately going to impose on states to reform Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Although Congress and the White House have yet to settle their differences over the issue, Mr. Glendening Wednesday became the first Democratic governor of a large state to move forward with the reforms Washington has sought, experts said.
Yet Maryland likely will have to pull off these reforms without spending more money on benefits. Governor Glendening has indicated that he doesn't want the state to pay more into the program even if Congress reduces its commitment in the future.
That, said welfare advocates, is why the laudable concept of putting people back to work is likely to run into trouble.
"You have to spend more money upfront on child care, job training and helping people who read at the third grade level get an education," said Lynda E. Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities in Baltimore. "It's clear we're not ready to invest more money in poor families."
Susan Leviton of Advocates for Children and Youth said the proposal "can't work with these figures" and worried what the changes might mean to the children that the welfare "safety net" was meant to protect. The children won't just disappear after five years, she said.
"Because the federal government cuts human resources, why can't the state make a decision to deal with that?" Ms. Leviton said.
Glendening administration officials insist that they will get the money to pay for these changes through the savings they will see when welfare recipients get jobs. But they admit the result will likely be a wash at best -- what the state doesn't pay for cash benefits may go to day care costs.
"As people become employed we'll pay less in benefits and more money to local departments to provide services," said Lynda G. Fox, deputy secretary of the state Department of Human Resources. "We don't see this as a way to save money. We see it as a redirection of money."
But are there enough entry-level jobs available for people who may have modest skills and education? That could be an enormous problem for Baltimore which has about half of all welfare recipients. Finding alternative volunteer work in the community could be just as difficult.
A study produced by the University of Baltimore estimates that there were only 8,800 jobs created statewide last year in suitable fields such as retail, restaurants and hotels. As of December, there were 211,000 welfare recipients of whom about 79,000 are adults, at least half of whom are considered capable of working.
Dr. Michael A. Conte, director of the university's Regional Economic Studies Program, said the flood of more people into entry level service jobs could increase the number of job openings.
"When a person with a child is offered a $6-an-hour job, she has to give up a welfare check, get child care, probably give up medical benefits, lose food stamps and probably wind up worse off economically," said Dr. Conte. "We may not be seeing an absence of jobs but an absence of job taking."
Welfare advocates are also questioning whether local social service offices that are geared to processing grant applications are prepared to handle something so different.
"Some moms will get jobs and that's good," said Ms. Meade of Catholic Charities. "But some offices that processed forms will now have to work with people and be creative. They can't be numbers gurus."
In deciding to pursue this new strategy, state officials also expect to scrap plans to create a pilot project to help find jobs for 3,000 families in Baltimore and Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Officials said the program was too expensive and ill-timed since Washington may demand states act quickly, not sit back and evaluate a pilot.
But some legislators pointed to that decision as an example of why problems may lie ahead. The pilot project was too expensive largely because it would provide benefits like extended medical assistance and job training to welfare recipients who found work.
"We pushed welfare reform through last year to be ahead of the federal government," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. "This year we're scrapping what we did and we're going to do what they're doing. It doesn't make sense."