Poverty, too, migrates to Baltimore County Welfare caseloads double in 4 years

January 17, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

In 1979, Camille Wheeler did what many people were doing -- she left the city of Baltimore and moved to the county. But she wasn't trying to escape urban problems. She was trying to solve them by taking a job as director of Baltimore County's Department of Social Services.

Now, more than 13 years later, her statistics paint a new portrait of poverty that is following the well-trodden path from the inner city to the suburbs. But when it arrives, Ms. Wheeler contends, it too often finds people who want to ignore it, hoping it will go away.

"If you look at the welfare caseloads, they are staying flat in the cities and the outlying areas," she said. "The two areas in the state where they are growing the most are Prince George's County, first, and then Baltimore County."

Ms. Wheeler has seen her department's clientele grow but never at the pace of the last four years.

"The first thing that happened after I got here in 1979 was theReagan budget bill changed the eligibility requirements, which caused our caseloads to drop," she said. "But then it started a gradual increase.

"Then in about 1988, the line on the graph gets sharper. We've gone from about 4,000 cases of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1988 to roughly 8,000 today. If you take the average family size, that means we're serving about 24,000 people. And it's still growing every month, even though the recession has been declared officially over."

Ms. Wheeler said there is little solid research to explain the growth of suburban poverty.

"I can only speculate," she said. "It is clear that some of it is structural, due to the recession and layoffs. People in the county are getting older, and when they get laid off it's much harder for them to find work.

"And you have a certain out-migration from the city," she added. "Poor people move out for the same reason anyone else does, looking for better schools, more recreation facilities, a better place to raise their families. And then some of the younger middle-class families have moved even farther out."

Despite the unassailable numbers, Ms. Wheeler says the countyand the region don't want to recognize the poverty in the midst of what is supposed to be suburban affluence.

"To this day, we in government in Baltimore County don't know how to deal with the prospect of becoming an urban county that is poorer," she said. "All the building that went on in the county during the 1980s was large, expensive housing.

"Very little was done for low- and moderate-income people and even less for poor families, even though we have more of those people today than we did early on in the decade. I don't think that we in the county have decided how to deal with that."

Ms. Wheeler thinks Baltimore County still has a chance to deal with its problems before they become overwhelming.

"If we don't help the people that are out here, eventually we will have the same problems that you see in the city," she contends.

Ms. Wheeler is not afraid to raise the specter of racism, which has often loomed over politics in a county whose population was swelled by white flight.

"Most of our clients are white, but it is true that blacks are disproportionately represented," she said. "Blacks are about 10 percent of the county's population and about 25 percent of the welfare cases. There are still people in the county who think that if you don't build affordable housing, don't provide good transportation, don't do this or that, then you will stop black people from moving into the county.

"There are still racial fears, in my opinion. There are lots of good people in the county who don't want to jump on that train, but there are still plenty of people who are scared."

Ms. Wheeler, 51, lived in Birmingham, Ala., during the years of civil rights unrest.

"I wrote a letter to the Birmingham paper that I thought was quite balanced, but some people didn't see it that way," she remembered. "We had the Ku Klux Klan after my family, threatening us with bombs, surrounding my mother in the car one day.

"I hate racism, in all of its forms, and that means black as well as white. I think you see a lot of black racism these days."

Ms. Wheeler is serving this year as president of the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She applauds many moves toward welfare reform but sees positive incentives as more effective than negative ones.

"Unlike some of my colleagues, I believe in things like workfare," she said. "I think real reform of the welfare system will be in getting people to work. Some people see workfare as some sort of indentured servitude, but it doesn't have to be like that.

"The Maryland program, Project Independence, that we have now, causes people to get connected with people and places that lead to jobs. It gives them some work experience so they look good to potential employers, things like that."

One basic problem with the current system, she said, is that it deducts the amount clients earn from their welfare checks.

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