The suburbs' angry 'new poor'

March 09, 1992

"I worked all my life. Why can't I get these food stamps now?" new welfare applicants demand of counselors in Baltimore County's social service offices. The last thing they want to hear about is the long wait to process applications.

As the recession drags formerly middle-class families into poverty, it is the level of anger expressed by this crop of "new poor" that most surprises social service workers. The poor, at least, are wise in the ways of welfare. Apply. Wait. Get help. Get off the list. Maybe get back on.

But the people now losing their jobs in the suburbs, folks with masters' degrees, in management, who own $200,000 homes, are increasingly being forced to wade into this public assistance system. Statistics from the suburbs illustrate the depth of the problem:

* Baltimore County has announced a 22 percent increase in benefits paid this winter.

* Anne Arundel County's non-public assistance food stamp applicants -- the "gateway" to public aid -- rose 400 percent between 1988 and 1991.

* Howard County's Aid to Families with Dependent Children grew 85 percent in that same time period.

* In Carroll County, the number of aid applicants reporting no income -- because they had exhausted unemployment benefits or were never eligible -- grew from zero in January 1991 to more than 100 this January past.

* In Harford County, general public assistance applications jumped 40 percent last year as people who once considered the welfare payout too meager to bother with are now scraping bottom.

Some suburban politicians lament that constituents don't believe the need is so great. They hear the term "welfare" and think "cheat." But a metamorphosis is taking place: Welfare is no longer a matter that concerns just "the poor."

Most agencies don't chart the former income stations of those seeking help. As one county social services director said, "By the time folks reach us, they're no longer upper-middle class." Workers in the trenches can feel the difference.

The "new poor" ask counselors at the Community Assistance Network in Baltimore County if they can file for aid at a branch far from home to avoid neighbors. If they qualify to have their homes weatherized, they inquire if the van that shows up looks like your average home contractor's or bears the telltale markings of government help.

Mostly, the new poor now know what the old poor knew: They're shocked, social workers say, at how little aid they get and how much red tape and delay they must tolerate. The money is not even enough to live on, nor is it enough to reach the poverty line.

Many county social service providers have started seminars to help their case workers deal with the stress and anger that the "new poor" so often bring to the welfare office with them. The recession has indeed reached the suburbs.

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