Tighter welfare rules sought New mothers would get 6 months to find job; Limit is 1 year now; Noncompliance could mean loss of benefits


Howard County officials want mothers on welfare to begin looking for a job within six months after giving birth -- or risk losing their benefits.

State rules allow a mother one year to begin her job search. Howard County would be the first jurisdiction in Maryland to reduce that period if the state Department of Human Resources approves the county's request for a waiver from the rules.

Although county officials say the shorter period is fair and in everyone's best interest, county social services advocates aren't so sure.

"When you're dealing with the welfare-to-work population, most of the participants are single women with limited education and support systems and limited resources," said John Geist, executive director of the Association of Community Services. "These mothers are much less likely to succeed when they're still struggling to deal with a fairly young baby."

Howard has also asked for a waiver that would allow it to deny mothers temporary cash assistance if they do not cooperate with county officials seeking child support from the fathers of their children. That would save the county $37,000 over the next 24 months, according to Debbie Douglass, assistant director of family investment for the county agency.

The number of people potentially affected by these waivers -- which are likely to be approved, according to Samuel Marshall, director of Howard's Department of Social Services -- is small compared with jurisdictions with large poor populations.

There were 817 Howard residents on welfare in April, down from 2,843 in 1996 -- a 71.3 percent decrease in three years.

Only one other county has sought a state waiver. The state approved Anne Arundel County's request to terminate assistance funds for anyone who does not work with the county to find a substance abuse program.

Marshall says the changes are needed and recipients are being informed.

"The quicker we get these parents or guardians back out there into the labor market, the easier it is to get a job and get off of welfare," he said. State lawmakers who approved a welfare reform bill in 1996 included the waiver provision to provide local flexibility. The law sets a five-year limit for finding work and getting off welfare.

"The goal, of course, is to bring people to self-sufficiency as soon as possible," said state Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Republican who represents Howard and Prince George's counties, co-chairs the legislature's joint committee on welfare and co-sponsored the law. State lawmakers "set the basic guidelines, but we don't believe there's one best system for everyone. We encourage each jurisdiction to look at their systems individually."

Madden partially credits the state's healthy economy for the reduction in welfare rolls. He also attributes Howard County's success to its willingness to try new ideas without waiting for instruction from state or federal leaders.

He favors Howard's request for the six-month waiver.

"Everyone in our system is facing very real time limits with regards to welfare benefits," Madden said. "The longer a period you exempt someone, it gives them less a period of time for them to get a job and get back into self-sufficiency. Full transition into the work force may take multiple years."

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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