Seeking work at the welfare office


HARRIET -- SHE doesn't give her last name -- showed up at the Anne Arundel Department of Social Services on Annapolis' West Street last week, not to apply for benefits, but to look for work.

Once she was a caretaker for disabled children. Then she became seriously ill with thyroid tumors. She lost her job, went on welfare, got off three months ago and does not wish to go back.

She does not seem to realize exactly where she is. "It says 'Job Center' out front," she says, scanning the classifieds. She thinks she is sitting in an employment agency.

And so she is. This is DSS's "Job Center," an eight-month-old venture into that part of welfare reform everyone supports but few have yet to tackle -- the part that encourages self-sufficiency. You can apply for benefits here, but, as the name implies, that is not the reason this office exists.

Other social-services departments have wrung their hands while waiting for Congress to change the rules on welfare. In Anne Arundel, they decided a year ago that the emphasis needed to shift toward employment, no matter what Washington ended up doing, for the simple reason that families can't live on what welfare provides.

Last September, working within the existing labyrinth of often nonsensical federal rules and within its existing budget, the department began requiring all welfare applicants (except those with exceptional circumstances) to seek child support and spend four weeks contacting at least 10 employers a week before they can collect a dime.

The Job Center -- a bright, professional office that bears no resemblance to the typical welfare office where applicants communicate like prisoners through a hole in glass -- opened in February.

You've never had a job interview? Service workers will prepare you for one. You can't get your GED because you have no one to watch your children? They can stay in an on-site day-care center while you study in a learning center just down the hall. You don't have suitable clothes? They will give you something to wear. You're worried about the stigma of being on welfare? The Job Center in its first three months saw 500 visitors looking for jobs only; employers don't know whether a Job Center applicant is a welfare recipient.

The results of the Anne Arundel program -- named one of eight models nationwide by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, featured in the August 12 issue of Time and soon to be the subject of a CNN report -- prove that welfare as we've known it really isn't in the best interests of many who come looking for help. They also shatter the notion, nursed by millions of taxpayers, that the poor want nothing more than to sponge at their expense.

One-third succeed

Since September one-third of welfare applicants have found work within the four-week search period.

Anne Arundel's welfare caseload has decreased by 14 percent since it began the job-search requirement, compared to 9 percent in Baltimore City and Montgomery, Baltimore and Prince George's counties.

Only 9 percent of those who found jobs showed up jobless and reapplied for benefits within six months. Only 10 percent of those required to participate in a job search refused to do so.

None of this proves that welfare reform will be surprisingly painless. As the Department of Social Services director, Ed Bloom, points out, the challenge is not instilling a desire to work. It's the shortage of jobs that pay a decent wage, even to workers with some skills and training.

The average starting wage for Anne Arundel job-search participants was $6.07 per hour. With an earned-income credit and child support, that amounts to twice what a family of one adult and two children would get monthly from welfare, but still barely more than what the department figures the family needs to meet minimum living expenses.

Harriet figures she needs $8 an hour to make it, and she hasn't been able to find it. And Anne Arundel has a strong local economy. Finding jobs that can support a family in Baltimore will be far more difficult.

Right now, the department helps low-wage workers get by with help from a subsidy or food stamps. But that will change once new five-year lifetime limits on cash aid and three-month lifetime limits on food stamps for out-of-work families kick in.

The department is pushing people to keep moving toward higher-paying jobs so they will not need a subsidy by the time the five years are up. Many families will reach this goal; some will not. The three-month food-stamp limit is more problematic. Three months is not a lot of time to find a decent job, even for highly educated people. The office expects poor adults who do not want their children to starve will end up working several low-paying jobs while their children are raised by relatives, if they are lucky, or left alone, if they are not.

They do not embrace this part of reform down on West Street, where they know work is always better than welfare but that work, unfortunately, sometimes is not enough.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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