Needy try to beat clock Many will be spared loss of benefits under welfare reform law; Some find employment; Most others qualify by virtue of efforts to prepare for jobs


Despite fears that thousands of Marylanders would be thrown off welfare Jan. 1 for failing to get ready for work, the number is actually much less -- hundreds at the most.

Almost 10,000 Maryland families, one-quarter of the state's entire caseload, are the first to face the federal time limits of welfare reform. The vast majority have enrolled in some type of work program that will allow them to continue to collect their monthly payments, at least for a few more years.

The clock is ticking for the 1,117 welfare recipients who have ignored or missed two years of warnings to enter work programs. More than half of them live in Baltimore. Montgomery, Carroll and Frederick counties also have relatively high percentages.

Most of the at-risk recipients are hurrying to seek exemptions or to sign up for sanctioned work activities, welfare officials say. The state expects to reduce their ranks to just a few hundred by the time the Jan. 1 deadline arrives.

The numbers are relatively small to begin with because the state has a low threshold for what constitutes preparing for employment.

Besides on-the-job training and other placement programs, all kinds of routine activities count, if done 20 hours a week: family counseling, literacy classes, driver education, volunteering as a school aide, sorting mail at church. Recipients can receive exemptions if they're in drug treatment or caring for a sick or disabled family member.

Those who haven't bothered to make any effort are the hardest cases. They're likely to be the third or fourth generation on welfare; often they're transient, illiterate or addicted to drugs or alcohol, officials say. Some might have lost -- or have never received -- notices of the 24-month time limit to begin looking, or at least training, for a job.

"It's only if they're unwilling to participate in the program that we will sanction them off the rolls," said Lynda G. Fox, the new secretary of the state Department of Human Resources. "We do anticipate some people will choose not to participate. Anyone who is willing to prepare for work will have the opportunity to do so -- and will not be dropped."

The state's latest projections, released this week, were a relief to Baltimore leaders, who had feared the cutoff would result in thousands of women and children being forced onto the streets. Homeless shelters and food pantries expected to be overwhelmed with requests for help.

While their immediate worries have been lifted, many advocates for the poor believe the state is not doing enough to prepare families for a time when they won't be able to fall back on public assistance.

Under the national reforms that took effect Jan. 1, 1997, welfare recipients -- most of them women with children -- have two years to make progress in finding work. It's up to the states to define what work is.

If they haven't found a job after the first 24 months, welfare recipients can continue to receive cash assistance for three more years -- if they stay in work training programs.

Even if enrolled in training programs, they face a strict time limit of five years. After using up a total of 60 months, even if they've gone on and off welfare, they will be taken off the rolls forever.

"The question is: Are they simply avoiding getting cut off right now by participating in make-work activities, or are they going to learn substantive skills?" said Peter Sabonis, a lawyer with the Family Investment Program Legal Clinic in Baltimore.

State officials defend their broad definition of job training, saying getting into drug treatment or even showing up regularly for volunteer duties teaches valuable skills. Advocacy groups and some state lawmakers worry that it's not enough.

"What we've seen with the two-year point is, given our bureaucratic nature, we'll let things slide a bit," said Robert V. Hess, president of the Baltimore-based Center for Poverty Solutions. "Well, that's a risky proposition. In the back of people's minds, some think the five-year maximum will never be imposed. But it's much more likely that it will be, and it's going to be extremely painful."

He and fellow advocates agree, the state has done the easy part -- prodding off the rolls the welfare recipients who were most eager to find employment.

Maryland can boast that it has reduced its caseload 55 percent since January 1995, to the lowest level in nearly three decades. The caseload, however, was inflated at the time of welfare reform because of the recession of the early 1990s. Much of the decline has been produced by the state's strong economy, advocates say.

"The people who have left already were the most well-prepared. Now, we're talking about people who really have significant barriers," said Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities. "Have we really looked closely to see what they need to get into work? Or are we doing something in a stop-gap way?"

For now, an immediate crisis has been forestalled.

Only four months ago, as many as 11,500 families were at risk of losing government assistance, including 9,000 in Baltimore -- about 12 percent of the city's welfare recipients. Since then, some have moved off welfare and into jobs, and social-service agencies have scrambled to place the rest in state-approved work programs. A pleased Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced yesterday that the city group is down to fewer than 500, and he expected most to work something out.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore and other lawmakers say the 24-month deadline has served as a reminder to them as well. They want to take a closer look at the state's progress.

"We want to know if the work activities are truly designed to help people take the next step and move into the work force and aren't a sham," said Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and the House chair of the legislature's Joint Committee on Welfare Reform.

"Eventually," he added, "people are going to have to find jobs."

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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