Four months ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced what was to be the latest phase in Maryland's welfare reform -- a program mandating that welfare mothers serve as "volunteers" with various non-profit groups.
But when the program officially starts today, it will be a kinder, gentler version of the original proposal. Welfare clients will be encouraged, but not required, to donate their time to community organizations.
Maryland had to drop its plans for a mandatory program because the federal government would not allow the state to cut the monthly welfare checks of those who did not comply. The state's other welfare reforms, which require proof of school attendance and preventive medical care, are still set to go into effect in January.
Stripped of sanctions, the state's new volunteer program essentially is a modest expansion of programs already in place in most Social Services offices across Maryland. The existing programs actually place welfare recipients in volunteer jobs. The new program will merely provide other welfare recipients with a list of local agencies that need volunteers.
"It's going to be a real push," said Helen Szablya, TC spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources, when asked how the new volunteer program differed from existing efforts. "We're going to put it on the front burner of everybody's mind."
Women involved in Baltimore's volunteer services program said it is helpful only for those clients who are highly motivated. But it can work well, as evidenced by the number of city welfare recipients who have found jobs through volunteering.
"Some of them just don't care," said Cherlyn A. Jackson, whose volunteer work led to a temporary position, then a full-time job in the personnel office at city Social Services.
Gladys Allison, a former volunteer who now has a temporary job in the city's child protection office, said some women sit home and wait for a check. She wasn't one of them.
"You just sit there and think about that check," Ms. Allison recalled of the time she spent as a recipient of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. "I didn't want to sit around the house all day long."
The city's volunteer services program began in 1967, one year before federal law mandated the creation of such departments, said Rosetta Mayo, chief of volunteer services.
While the office is open to anyone, most participants are welfare recipients, although the recession brought in other jobless people looking for training opportunities. About 80 people are volunteering at any given time, receiving lunch money and carfare as part of the city program. (These incentives will not be part of the new state effort.)
Marion Anderson, a 29-year-old city resident with eight children, takes home less from her temporary job than she used to get from a monthly welfare check and food stamps. But she says working has made her feel more confident.
"I was ecstatic," she said of her switch to a paying job. "I felt like I was on 'The Price is Right.' "
But what if she had been told to volunteer, instead of seeking the experience on her own? "I probably would have been angry at first," Ms. Anderson said. "I am an adult."