Spurred in part by a sagging economy, the number of families getting welfare in Maryland continues to soar -- particularly in the suburban counties outside Baltimore and Washington.
New state figures show that the welfare caseload, which began an abrupt rise in July 1989, continued to grow at a steady pace through September of this year. And officials say there is no evidence the numbers will fall soon.
Statewide, the number of families getting benefits from the main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, rose by more than 10 percent during the 14-month period. Nearly 70,000 households were on the program's rolls.
The state Department of Human Resources is awaiting the results of a study, expected in December, to officially explain the increase. But officials say they believe it will show a combination of reasons, including the economy.
"If you ask caseworkers, they will tell you we are seeing a different kind of applicant than we've seen in a while," said Joe H. Raymond, a department official. "We're seeing the couple who had been working steadily and has never applied before, but their jobs are no longer there."
But officials also suspect that social problems -- including rising teen pregnancy rates and the drug epidemic -- are contributing to the increase. In Prince George's County in particular, workers say they are getting many applications from grandparents and other relatives who are caring for children whose parents have been incapacitated by drug use or who are in prison for dealing drugs.
"It's amazing how many relatives are trying to take on this burden," said Mike Gentry, a supervisor in the county's Palmer Park office.
Prince George's was one of the first counties where AFDC rolls increased, but the new figures show the phenomenon has spread to every jurisdiction in the state. The increase has been particularly severe in the suburban counties, though state officials don't know why.
The number of families getting AFDC benefits in Prince George's has grown by more than a quarter. In Baltimore County, the rolls are up by 22 percent, and in Harford County by more than 23 percent.
Overall, Baltimore's five suburban counties have seen an increase of 20 percent, and the Washington suburbs nearly 24 percent. Baltimore's caseload has been growing at a much slower pace of about 5 percent.
Human Resources officials declined to say last week when or at what level they believe the caseload will stop growing, saying their projections have yet to be reviewed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. They acknowledged, however, that the AFDC program is likely to generate an even larger deficit by the end of the fiscal year than was previously expected.
In its budget proposal to the General Assembly in January, the administration predicted an average welfare caseload of roughly 68,000 families. But legislators approved enough money for only 66,900 families -- $298 million in combined state and federal funds -- arguing that the administration's estimate was too high.
Since then, officials have found that even the original estimate was too low, and the budget department has predicted the AFDC program will finish the fiscal year in June with a deficit of $8 million, which would be shared equally by the state and federal governments.
The new caseload figures, however, suggest the deficit could well be larger than that by the end of the fiscal year. If the caseload would remain at September's level for the rest of the fiscal year, the resulting deficit would be more than $12 million.
Mr. Raymond noted that the welfare rolls also are growing rapidly in other states, and the federal government is itself doing studies to try to figure out why.
While the increase in some New England states hit hard by the economic downturn appears clearly attributable to rising unemployment, Maryland is among the states where the answer appears to be more complicated. The caseload began rising here months before there were signs of a slowdown in the state's economy.
Mr. Raymond said welfare offices may be seeing people affected by pockets of unemployment that weren't reflected in the state's relatively low unemployment rate. Welfare workers in Essex for the past year have been seeing men and women laid off from manufacturing jobs in Baltimore County, while caseworkers in Glen Burnie say that for months they have been seeing men who can no longer find construction jobs.
"We're seeing quite a few people who have never been here before," said Connie Lewis, a caseworker in Glen Burnie. "I think it's frightening, and a little embarrassing for them."
In Essex, supervisor Marilyn Lorenzo says her staff is seeing more laid-off workers, too. But they also are seeing single mothers who have quit their jobs, saying they could not keep up with the cost of day care for their children. The office also has begun to see AIDS victims who are too sick to work and have nowhere else to turn, she said.
Beyond the reasons offered for the increase in applications, Mr. Raymond noted that another factor in the caseload growth is that people don't seem to be leaving welfare as rapidly as in the past. State officials say much of the welfare caseload is composed of unskilled workers who routinely go on and off the rolls, working when they can find a job and getting welfare when they can't.
"It appears there are fewer jobs for them to move into now," Mr. Raymond said.
Others believe that the state's hiring freeze is contributing to the longer periods people are on welfare.
Welfare workers are supposed to sit down with recipients every six months to see if they remain eligible for the benefits, and the sessions often result in a case being closed. But administrators in several local offices say that the flood of new applications has prevented their workers from getting to those reviews.