Cuts in welfare starting to slow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Although Maryland has been sending welfare recipients off the rolls and into work in dramatic numbers, its progress in reducing caseloads is starting to slow, mirroring a trend across the country.

Among those who remain are faces both new and known to the system - an illustration, officials say, that even though President Clinton promised three years ago to "end welfare as we know it," welfare in some form likely will always be with us.

Between January and May last year, for example, Maryland's assistance rolls fell by nearly 10,000 people. It took another year for the total to fall by another 10,000.

Statewide, 75,650 people were receiving cash assistance at the end of May, the last month for which the state had complete statistics. In January 1995, the rolls numbered 227,887.

And though they are still on a downward trajectory, caseloads have started to fluctuate, going up and down from month to month.

"We're never going to get down to zero or even close to zero as long as we're running programs the way we are now," said Jack Tweedie, a welfare reform expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"There are some families that have particularly difficult problems."

There are exceptions to the trend. Carroll County had the same percentage decrease from 1999 to 2000 as it did from 1998 to 1999. Garrett County in Western Maryland and Queen Anne's and Wicomico counties on the Eastern Shore saw their numbers fall at a faster rate than the year before.

And in a couple of places - Cecil and Talbot counties - the number of people on welfare increased, on the whole, from 1999 to 2000.

Lynda G. Fox, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, says that's to be expected in counties where the overall numbers are small - and where dramatic reductions took place early on.

"The rural counties have probably gotten their caseloads about as low as they can go," she said.

Maryland officials say they're not worried by the slowdown - that, in fact, they expected it.

They say they also believe their numbers are low enough already to keep any welfare recipients from being cut off from benefits in 2002, when the federal welfare reform "clock" -which allows no more than five years of lifetime benefits beginning in January 1997 - will chime.

As of last December, the department calculated that 1,477 Maryland adults still on welfare were on course to lose benefits in 2002. That number is expected to be well under an exception set by Congress that allows 20 percent of a state's recipients to keep receiving benefits after that time, Fox said.

Many of those left are concentrated in Baltimore - a pattern that also reflects the national trend.

A study released by the Brookings Institution last week found that welfare cases are increasingly concentrated in urban areas where recipients have poor prospects for employment and many personal difficulties to overcome. The city's caseload, for example, has gone from 48 percent of the state number in 1994 to 58 percent last year, even as its rolls have dropped by half.

Baltimore social services officials have responded by launching contracts with more intensive case management programs designed to work with families on relationships, transportation, school arrangements and day care. They are also trying to improve the way they assess clients up front - to uncover sensitive underlying problems such as drug addiction, domestic violence and mental disabilities.

Advocates for welfare clients in the city say the intensified assessment process is coming far too late. The Family Investment Program Legal Clinic argued in a recent report that city clients should be exempted from the federal clock because of inadequate assessment and because they live in "a place that's hard," with fewer jobs than far-away suburbs.

"We were in month 41 out of 60 before intensive case management was available to anybody in Baltimore City," said Karen Czapanskiy, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who has worked with the clinic.

Cecil County, which has reduced its caseload 80 percent since 1995, has also started an effort to improve its assessments, said Nick Ricciuti, director of the county Department of Social Services. "We're trying to figure out what the real barriers are," he said.

Some of those he still serves are like Barbara Garnett - a mother of five struggling to end a way of life and adapt to a new world of work. Garnett has been to the job training class at the Cecil Community College adult education center in Elkton. She has heard the lectures on liking yourself better, on shaking the interviewer's hand and looking him in the eye.

And yet she is back on welfare - where she has been, on and off, since the age of 16.

Over the past several years she has gotten several jobs, and ultimately left them. One was at a Popeye's restaurant, but Garnett moved and had no car to get there. She worked at Kmart for several months, but the graveyard shift was difficult and the stock work uninspiring. Volunteering at the local library, considered a "work activity" in the welfare program, ended, too.

Garnett would like to work in an industrial setting - do something with her hands - but she hasn't found such a job. She is hopeful, though, and in the meantime doesn't mind coming back to the center to hear much of the same information over again.

"I like the people here," Garnett said. "But they may be getting tired of me."

While Garnett hasn't been successful in permanently getting off welfare, she does at least come to class. Last week, several other Cecil County clients who hadn't gotten jobs after years on welfare were supposed to have a session with a special case manager, Ricciuti said. But none of them showed up.

Though they are often pointed to as the lingering problem of welfare, long-term cases don't make up the bulk of those now on Maryland's rolls, Fox said. Many have received two years' worth of benefits or less.

They are people like Marjorie Lorden, 37, who sits down the row from Garnett in the Cecil County training class. The Elkton mother of eight recently signed up for cash assistance for the first time - having banished her boyfriend, and the income he sometimes brought in, from her home because he did not get along with her son.

Lorden has worked before, but has no high school diploma and limited skills, she said.

On a recent day in the Cecil County class, Lorden and her fellow students were asked to make two lists about themselves: one stating facts, and the other, opinions.

Under "opinions," Lorden wrote: "I think I need to hit the Lotto!"

And: "I think I need a job."

In some cases, people are staying on welfare longer than they were in the first years of welfare reform because caseworkers are being more flexible - allowing clients to continue their educations or pursue job training while continuing to receive benefits.

In Baltimore, the Department of Social Services recently agreed to expand a pilot program for Baltimore City Community College students who wanted to get assistance while they went to school, instead of having to quit and work.

Advocates laud the flexibility, but worry that there is too little of it to tackle their real goal - lifting people not just out of welfare, but out of poverty. They worry that if the economy turns sour, new workers who have left welfare for minimum wage work will be the first to lose their jobs.

"It is something we all need to keep in front of us, because [the reductions] are slowing as the economy is still rolling along," said Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Associated Catholic Charities of Baltimore and chairman of a group called Welfare Advocates.

"This is the best of times," she said.

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