While traditional cash payments to welfare recipients continue to drop in Maryland overall - especially in Baltimore - prosperous Howard and Harford counties are seeing sharply higher numbers of people going on assistance rolls.
Disturbed by the trend - a 94 percent increase in Howard and a 59 percent jump in Harford over two years and lesser increases in other suburbs - state Department of Human Resources officials commissioned a study by the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, which blamed recession-related unemployment intensified by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Both counties have unemployment rates hovering around 4.7 percent.
Population movement from Baltimore to the surrounding suburbs also accounted for some of the increase, the study found.
"Technologically advanced counties such as Howard that rely heavily on the telecommunications and computer industries to power their economies were hit the hardest by layoff events associated with September 11," the RESI analysis said.
Harford's manufacturing and warehouse industries also shed jobs, said John Hopkins, assistant director of RESI.
Howard County's 94 percent increase in welfare payments, charted between October 2000 and October last year, represents 292 more people getting monthly cash assistance. Harford County's 59 percent increase represents 716 people. Smaller increases in cash payments to welfare recipients occurred in Anne Arundel, Calvert and St. Mary's counties, and on the Eastern Shore in Dorchester, Queen Anne's and Wicomico counties.
The trend documented by RESI appears to be continuing. Welfare cases in Howard County rose by 111 between October last year and June. Harford's caseload rose by 25, and Anne Arundel's grew by 154.
"Some of the folks that need food, need food more often. They're not getting off the [welfare] rolls, or they don't have the [job] skills," said Bruce Michalec, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Food and Resource Bank.
But during the same period covered by the RESI study, Baltimore experienced a 13 percent decline in cash welfare recipients - totaling a far larger group of 6,159 people.
There are still plenty of entry-level jobs, said Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for Baltimore's Social Services Department. And "we are using creative transportation methods to get people out of the city," she added.
Baltimore County also saw a decline of 19 percent, said social services spokeswoman Maureen Robinson. "There appear to be more jobs available in the county toward the needs of this particular application," she said, noting that the county's strict rules about working or attending classes on how to find a job seem to be helping.
Statewide, cash assistance caseloads dropped by 2.6 percent last fiscal year, and 69 percent since 1995. Now, 71,648 people in Maryland get cash welfare, including 40,301 in Baltimore.
In Howard County, the number of cash assistance recipients is 79 percent lower than in 1995, before federal welfare reform took effect.
Still, suburban officials are worried about what the trend means in places where poverty is hard to see amid expensive homes, shopping centers and streams of shiny sport utility vehicles. Harford County, for example, has no permanent shelter for the homeless.
"Poor people move to Harford County for some of the same reasons that more affluent people do - perceptions of better schools, lower crime and better job opportunities," said Rick Walker, Harford's assistant director of social services.
Howard officials agreed, with several County Council members noting that a recent briefing revealed a doubling, from 4.8 to 9.9 percent, of the county's schoolchildren on free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty, during the 1990s.
"People come to Columbia looking for a better way of life, but it's becoming more difficult if you don't have the money," said Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat.
Local social services officials worry that the long state employment freeze is slowing their response when people lose jobs, making recovery that much more difficult.
"We are getting people out the door and into jobs, but now people are coming back [after layoffs] and we can't gear up. That doesn't allow us to get people back into jobs as fast," said Sam Marshall, Howard County's social services director.
State job freeze
With 32.5 vacancies in his staff since the state job freeze began last year, he and his assistant director are occasionally taking turns as receptionists, he said.
Temporary jobs "that were often the refuge for former temporary cash assistance recipients" also have disappeared, the report said. Nationally, 360,000 temporary jobs were lost in 2001 because of the recession, with a one-third decline in Howard County that year.
The RESI study also said that demolition of Baltimore's high-rise public housing has moved some poor families to the suburbs. Walker noted that Baltimore County, too, has demolished several run-down apartment complexes in Middle River.
And the growing population of the outer suburban counties has brought to Howard and Harford more people of all economic classes, the report said.