The human side of this region's economic problems can be seen all too clearly in the bulging welfare rolls of Baltimore's suburbs.
In the past year, the number of Baltimore County families receiving help under the Aid to Families with Dependant Children program surged 22 percent. Harford logged a 24 percent increase and Howard and Anne Arundel welfare rolls grew by 20 and 17 percent, respectively. Families receiving government assistance rose 24 percent in the Washington suburbs.
What accounts for this rise? A spate of layoffs in recent months has hit the most vulnerable pockets of the population -- single mothers and two-earner households in minimum-wage and manufacturing jobs. Also at work is a dramatic rise in teen pregnancies and a growing number of AIDS victims unable to work.
AFDC is an entitlement program funded jointly by the federal and state governments, which means that those in need get helped no matter how many apply. But the state, faced with a huge revenue shortfall, is cutting administrative resources at a time when the need for services has risen sharply. Caseloads are growing against a shrinking pool of caseworkers. New and vacant positions go unfilled.
The consequences have been disastrous. Error rates in determining eligibility are rising. Some local offices are so bogged down by new applicants that they can't keep track of older cases. Tax dollars earmarked for helping those who have fallen on hard times are not being put to the most effective use. Of particular concern is the impact on children -- especially those being neglected or abused and in need of government assistance.
It is tempting to chide the General Assembly for missing the mark and allocating far fewer dollars for this year's AFDC program, which could finish $12 million in the red. True, lawmakers callously lowered the AFDC figures for their own political gain, but no one could have predicted the swiftness and intensity of the downturn that has ballooned AFDC rolls.
A comprehensive study under way at the University of Baltimore should provide a clearer, more realistic outlook on which to base AFDC projections in the next state budget.
In the interim, the state has a responsibility to keep its welfare machinery running efficiently. Costly welfare self-help programs like Project Independence may have to wait. Effectively running programs that help those who need it most should have top priority in Annapolis.