Welfare shift has officials hopeful Job supply is good for recipients who are forced to go to work

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Welfare reform has begun to take shape across Maryland, and Carroll officials are cautiously optimistic about their task of guiding people from dependency to self-sufficiency.

Compared with more urban areas in the state, the Carroll numbers are manageable, particularly because the county has low unemployment and entry-level jobs for people coming off public assistance are increasing.

"We're going to pull all our resources together to make it happen, and we're lucky that the economy is fairly good," said David R. Ensor, an assistant director with the county Department of Social Services.

The federal government's welfare reform initiative, which took effect in October, requires states to put 25 percent of their welfare recipients to work this year and increase that to 50 percent in five years.

In Carroll County, where 316 families are receiving Temporary Cash Assistance -- formerly called Aid to Families With Dependent Children -- 176 recipients must find jobs within 18 months or work in government-created community service jobs.

Other local families on welfare are not subject to the time limits because they have exemptions for such reasons as disabilities and caring for infants.

Under federal law, welfare recipients are limited to two consecutive years of cash payments and are restricted to a total of five years on the welfare rolls over a lifetime.

"The whole concept we're trying to instill in our customers is, 'We're paying you a salary, and your job is to find work, and if you don't, we'll find something for you to do,' " Ensor said.

Welfare recipients couldn't be entering the job market at a better time, said James A. Mayola, manager of the Westminster office of the state Division of Employment and Training.

The unemployment rate in Carroll was 4.9 percent in February, the latest figure available, compared with 6.1 percent at the same time last year.

While unemployment is declining, the number of entry-level jobs in Carroll is increasing, Mayola said, a fortunate combination for job-hunting welfare recipients.

"It's tougher for employers to attract people," he said. "People they might have thought twice about hiring before, they might give that person a shot and be willing to train people with less experience."

Job listings soar

A few years ago, the state's weekly job listing service for Carroll County -- which includes openings in private industry -- generally had 100 to 120 entry-level positions. Mayola said that number has tripled and that there are more jobs that don't require a high school diploma or work experience, qualifications many welfare recipients lack.

The jobs typically pay $5.50 to $9.50 an hour.

"This is where you start, and there's always the chance for advancement," Mayola said.

Social services officials say they recognize the financial limits of entry-level positions and hope to increase the chances of a successful transition from welfare to work by extending health and day-care benefits, emphasizing child-support collections and offering other support to former recipients.

"It's almost like we have to create a support system where people have the supports they used to have from an extended family," said George W. Giese, director of Carroll's Department of Social Services.

For example, if a newly employed former welfare recipient has a sick child, the department will send a home health nurse to the parent's home to care for the child.

'A little bit of help'

There are plans to have case managers work informally with clients as they begin new jobs, to suggest solutions to transportation or day-care problems or to offer moral support.

"Sometimes they just need a little bit of help to continue on their own," said Ann Moore, a supervisor with the department. "We're helping these people change their lives and become independent, whereas before what we were doing was processing applications."

For the past year, looking toward welfare reform, welfare applicants in Carroll have been required to look for work while waiting for their aid applications to be processed, which can take up to a month.

Caseload drops

State officials say similar initiatives across the state have resulted in decreased welfare caseloads. In January, the state Department of Human Resources reported that Carroll's caseload had dropped from 1,741 welfare recipients in January 1995 to 1,313 recipients in November 1996, a decrease of almost 25 percent. Statewide, welfare caseloads have been reduced by 22 percent, officials said.

Advocates for the poor say it isn't clear that people are finding jobs that will allow them to stay off welfare.

In Carroll, welfare recipients who need help looking for jobs are referred to the Day One course at the county's Business and Employment Resource Center (BERC), which is operated through the federally funded Job Training Partnership Act.

The three-week workshop addresses resume writing, job search resources and interviewing techniques. "We can also identify those individuals who don't have good skills to market to an employer and are candidates for occupational training," said Sandi Myers, director of BERC.

For many welfare recipients who will fill entry-level jobs, it could take as long as two years to work full time and earn enough to support their families, Myers said. In such cases, their Temporary Cash Assistance grants will be reduced depending on their earnings and family size.

"At least it gives them work experience to put on their resume," Myers said.

Job seekers have access to resource materials at BERC and the Job Service program at Carroll's Division of Employment and Training. Services include access to personal computers for resume writing and cover letters, facsimile machines and computer databases of job listings.

CareerNet, which became available in Carroll last month, provides a computer link to a national database of employment opportunities, a program to research occupations and Internet access for job searches.

BTC The Maryland Job Service program, administered by the Division of Employment and Training, matches job hunters with jobs and makes referrals to employers.

In Carroll, Mayola said, employers won't be hiring large groups of welfare recipients, which might be the case in urban areas.

"I don't think we're going to have any one employer call and say, 'We need 15 welfare recipients,' " he said. "Most of the hiring will probably be taking place in ones and twos."

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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