For social workers, the numbers are up Suburban offices see a heavy influx of the newly poor.

November 19, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

In 20 years of social work, Joyce Harmon, the Essex district manager of Baltimore County's social service system, wasn't used to seeing that many male clients.

Then she opened the office one morning at 8 and saw five men already standing in line. They represented just the latest wave of Maryland's new poor -- middle- and lower-middle-income people who had never thought they might need Social Services.

You can see them almost any day at the suburban Department of Social Services centers. Black and white, male and female, young and old, they're armed with sheaves of paper and plenty of attitude. They feel angry, frustrated, embarrassed and betrayed.

For three years now, the number of families receiving assistance in Baltimore's suburbs has increased steadily, while the saturated city rolls have stayed relatively flat.

The result is a social service system under siege.

"We see absolute fear and humiliation," said Nancy Wegman, assistant director for Baltimore County's income-maintenance programs, a cruel misnomer as far as some clients are concerned.

"Sometimes the staff is interviewing clients up until the doors close," Wegman said. "Our paperwork days [days in which they saw no clients] are gone. People are loud and hollering, 'I paid taxes all these years and this is all I get?' "

Stories from this front include:

* A disabled man applied for benefits and learned he would have to spend almost all of his $33,000 in savings. "Do I have to be destitute to get help?" he asked.

* A Baltimore County man told social workers he had gone from grossing $100,000 a year to having absolutely nothing.

* An out-of-work 49-year-old man couldn't afford to make copies of the documents required for aid, so he sent the originals.

"I never was so conscious of keeping a box of Kleenex on my desk as I am now," said Annette Smith, Baltimore County's Catonsville office manager. "They're in my office, talking to me, because they just don't believe the worker. They start to cry. Sometimes I have to take a Kleenex myself."

Statewide, welfare payments hit their lowest point in July 1988, then began a steady climb that heralded the state's economic woes. One state budget analyst saw this rise pointing to a recession as of August 1990.

The initial increase, Wegman said, was the result of the %o "last-hired, first-fired" syndrome, in which people with no unemployment benefits were laid off and went straight to DSS for help.

Over the past year, other laid-off workers came in as unemployment benefits ran out. The under-employed -- part-time workers who cannot earn enough to support themselves -- also needed help.

The biggest percentage increases in various welfare programs occurred in the smaller counties, such as Carroll and Howard.

In Carroll, the number of households receiving food stamps, but no other public assistance, rose 70 percent from September 1988 to September 1991. In Howard, Aid to Families with Dependent Children was up 85 percent.

In Baltimore County, where the welfare caseload is five times larger than Howard's, the number of households receiving AFDC jumped 56 percent, while those receiving non-public assistance food stamps increased by 53 percent.

Requests for emergency assistance -- $250 grants available to forestall eviction, pay burial costs, or cover other unexpected expenses -- also are up. The number of applications rose 18 percent in Baltimore's suburban counties from fiscal year 1988 through fiscal year 1991.

Perhaps the most staggering statistic is the increase in households applying for aid, an indication of how many families feel they are at the end of their rope.

From September 1988 to September 1991, the increase in the number of families applying for non-public assistance food stamps ranges from 78 percent in Baltimore County to 400 percent in Anne Arundel County. In Baltimore City, applications dropped 45 percent over the same period.

These figures, while based on relatively small numbers, are significant because this is a so-called "gateway" benefit, the first form of aid for which most families qualify.

For some of these clients, simply asking for help is overwhelming.

"Initially, when people find out they're out of work, there's this panic and immobilization that takes place, perhaps some helplessness," said Harold S. Steinitz, a psychologist who coordinates the stress-management program at Shepard-Pratt hospital.

"As well as the anger, there is the loss of some myths," Steinitz said. " 'I thought I would be taken care of as long as I did whatever I was told.' 'They're changing the rules on me.' 'We were playing straight poker and now you're telling me jokers are wild.' The professionals always thought their education and training would be enough to protect them."

Victims of the recession often get even angrier when DSS workers tell them that aid is determined by rigid federal guidelines. Mortgages, car payments, tuition, debts -- none of it is factored into the grant.

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