Sensitivity sought for 'new poor' Agencies are reminded of needs of clients

March 17, 1992|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Staff Writer ZfB

The "new poor" are also the angry poor, the shocked poor and the stressed-out poor, and social agencies must treat them more sensitively than they do the "old poor," according to public assistance officials who spoke at a social services conference yesterday at Sheppard Pratt Health System.

"People seeking social benefits for the first time are often shocked to find they can't get all the assistance they'll need," said Annette Smith, the public assistance policy specialist for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. "Or they may not qualify for aid, so they get irate and say, 'I've paid taxes for 30 years, and now you tell me I can't get something back when I need it?' "

"Sometimes these people break down and cry," she said. "This is not what we in social services are used to seeing. It's hard on these people, and it's hard on us."

Ms. Smith was one of four panelists addressing the theme, "I've Never Been Poor Before," one of nine panel discussions at the conference on topics ranging from homelessness to juvenile sex offenders.

About 200 social service professionals and volunteers attended the event, titled, "Stretching the Resources: An Interagency Response," exchanging information on the public and private assistance programs available in the county.

The Rev. Daniel Koch, director of the Liberty Assistance Center, a private aid agency in Randallstown, said that public social service agencies, like the county DSS, have been treating the new poor with a curtness and impatience that must end.

"These new poor have never received public aid before," said Mr. Koch. "They're reluctant to take it; they're ashamed."

Social service workers could lessen the pain for new clients, he added, by telling them that, while government assistance may not meet all their needs, additional resources can be found at private agencies such as Mr. Koch's.

"We as service providers have to treat the new poor a little more gently," said Bob Gajdys, director of the Community Assistance Network, a private aid agency based in Dundalk. "These are people who have been self-sufficient and had that work ethic, and many believe the benefits are their right," he said.

Nancy Chilton, director of the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, a private aid organization supported by 33 local churches, said her agency is serving more college-educated clients and white-collar workers. She agreed with other panelists that social agencies must approach the new poor with heightened sensitivity.

One woman in the audience worried that, while the new poor receive special treatment, the old poor could be ignored or, worse, become the victims of discrimination.

The panelists said they share that concern, and Mr. Koch warned against a general trend in "poor-bashing."

But Mr. Gajdys added that the old and new poor nonetheless are two very different groups requiring different approaches. The stress is showing not just on the new poor but also on the social workers who attend to their needs, the panelists said. Mr. Gajdys said CAN recently brought in a "stress consultant" to counsel the agency's workers for the pressures they've been feeling as their clients have increased dramatically.

CAN served 17,066 households from September 1991 to February 1992, compared with 13,299 households served during the same period a year earlier, Mr. Gajdys said.

Ms. Chilton said her agency served 4,800 in 1991, or 800 more than in 1990. And, since Liberty Assistance Center opened six years ago, the number of clients has increased by more than 400 percent, according to Mr. Koch.

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