For a growing number of Harford's middle-class families, the economic recession has meant more than paring spending on movies, designer jeans or other luxuries -- it's meant swallowing their pride and asking for help.
"They're the you and me of society," said Larry Berardelli, director of the county Department of Social Services, explaining that his agency is doing more than just helping the working poor.
"With the economy out of whack, we're getting a lot of people we don't usually see. Our caseload has increased tremendously."
For example, the department's six caseworkers, who in 1989 handled an average of 300 clients each, now handle about 400 each, he said.
In August 1989, the county agency paid out $184,615 in food stamps to 1,586 households. This month, the department has paid out $344,328 in food stamps to 2,211 households.
The effect of the new flood: there are so many applicants for aid at the county DSS offices, that there is now a three-week wait before the department can even tell applicants if they qualify for help, except in the most dire of emergencies.
Sally Biser, assistant director of the social services division which determines eligibility, said many such applicants don't qualify for help because unemployment compensation is more than $120 a week.
Even when applicants qualify for help, it could be as long as 60 days before they receive benefits because of the processing time, she said.
"Over 50 percent of the people we see are people who never thought they'd be walking through this door," said Linda Bingham, a county social services employee who determines whether a family can get public and medical assistance or food stamps.
"They come in and say'I need everything, anything.' "
Because of client confidentiality, the department could not provide names of clients to be interviewed or give examples of specific cases.
However, Berardelli described the new typical applicant for public assistance this way:
"You have somebody sitting there who has a big mortgage payment, maybe $1,000 or $2,000 a month, boats, a car payment, and if the husband or wife loses a job, that has destroyed the household.
"They're humiliated just finding themselves in this position."
Bingham sets aside two days a week for client appointments. In addition to the five appointments she scheduled, she also may interview as many as seven drop-in clients facing emergencies.
The flood of cases, coupled with thestate's hiring freeze, has left Harford caseworkers overwhelmed.
Social services is turning people away more frequently, said Berardelli, because the agency is strapped for cash by state budget cuts, understaffed, ill-equipped, hampered by an archaic record-keeping system, and overwhelmed by the number of requests for help.
For example,the county department's budget for workers' salaries was cut about $131,000 -- from $4.7 million last year to about $4.6 million this year, said Bruce Conway, assistant director for administration at the county agency.
Of 155 jobs, 6.5 positions have been frozen since last summer, he said.
That may not sound like a high number, said Conway, but the loss of a worker in a key position can have a domino effect on the agency.
For example, instead of 10 workers available tointerview new clients, the hiring freeze has left that work to seven.
The budget cutbacks also have meant equipment needs have gone unmet. For instance, Bingham didn't get the computer she expected that would have speeded up paperwork and let the agency provide help more quickly.
"If they apply for food stamps, they think they'll walk out of here with them the same day. It's not conceivable that I can put something through the system in 24 hours," said Bingham.
The system requires she fill out a hand-written form, which is passed to a clerk who enters the information into a computer, said Berardelli. "Huge caseloads push workers to make hasty decisions and increase their mistakes. These errors result in overpayments and underpayments, all of which require later action and thus more work," said Berardelli.
"Huge caseloads push workers to make hasty decisions and increase their mistakes. These errors result in overpayments and underpayments,all of which require later action and thus more work," said Berardelli.
What it comes down to is "not having the flexibility to deal with asituation based on an individual's needs," said Biser. "Instead we're basing it on meeting the regulations. We only have 30 days to handle the case after their application for aid, and if we can't see them for three weeks, we're almost out of time."
The strain on the county agency is being felt by area churches, said the Rev. Peggy Groseclose, of Bel Air United Methodist Church, which runs a soup kitchen that feeds about 75 people each Wednesday.
When social services says no, people "come church shopping," said Groseclose.
"It's very difficult for some people who have prided themselves on being able to take care of their families to have to go to social services," said Groseclose. "It's hard enough for them to apply for social servicesor unemployment, but then to have to make the rounds of the churchesto supplement that help. It's demeaning to those who are really hurting."
Groseclose said Bel Air United Methodist receives an averageof five or six requests daily from people who need help with everything from paying their rent or gas and electric bills to getting food.
The church has no budget for providing such emergency assistance,relying on donations, she said. "We can't possibly help all those people. It's very frustrating," said Groseclose. "Whether it's federal money or other ways we've got to help people support themselves. We've got to empower people so they can handle their lives."