Independence pains


ADMINISTRATORS AT the Maryland Department of Human Resources point to the state's record low welfare caseload as proof of successfully moving people from dependency "toward jobs and careers."

The 66,725 individuals receiving benefits is the lowest in 41 years and a 70 percent decrease since January 1995, when the caseload was more than 227,000. Welfare administrators say the drop represents "success in the workplace" by former recipients who went through state job training programs. Families are better off as a result, they say. Too bad that's only part of the story.

While it is true many former welfare recipients are working, almost as many don't have jobs, much less careers. Nor is it apparent that families are better off. An annual report on welfare reform by the University of Maryland's School of Social Work said that although 29.9 percent of recipients who have left welfare since 1996 left for jobs, 21.8 percent were forced off for not complying with federal work requirements, 18.4 percent did not reapply for welfare, 15.4 percent never completed the paperwork to verify or continue eligibility, and 7.1 percent requested that their cases be closed.

In addition, the majority of families who recently left welfare continue to receive food stamps and state health care benefits. And seven years after leaving welfare, 33.1 percent of families were still getting food stamps and 75.3 percent were getting medical assistance, the report said. "Recent leavers" were also "significantly less likely to be employed in the first year after exiting" and "more likely to return" to welfare three months after leaving. Their children were "at increased risk" of being placed in foster care.

These findings are hardly the picture of self-sufficiency. Declining dependency may be good for taxpayers and state finances, but there are heavy costs when people leave welfare rolls without being on an employer's payroll - more children in an already overtaxed foster care system, increased homelessness and drug or alcohol abuse.

We don't fault state officials for highlighting the good news. Moving thousands of people who spent decades on welfare into the labor market is no small feat. Indeed, half of all former recipients employed in jobs are covered by state unemployment insurance, still working three years after leaving the rolls and have increased incomes, according to the report.

We do take issue with ignoring the bad news - problems that should be addressed through program adjustments and more-aggressive case management. If the problems are overlooked, the DHR may soon find itself again supporting some of those who thought they had left the rolls for good.

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