Amid county's affluence, demand for welfare grows by 20% in last 3 years

January 02, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Staff Writer

As one of the state's richest counties, Howard County doesn't seem a likely victim of a sour economy.

But in the last three years, the county has reported a 20 percent increase in demand for welfare programs, and the Department of Social Services says demand continues to grow.

That doesn't surprise some service providers, who say the county's needy are often "invisible" because most people tout the jurisdiction's affluence and overlook its needs.

"We have a lot of families that are second- and third-generation families living together, sisters living together with eight or nine kids, things you've never heard of before," said Evelyn Handy, a community worker with the Community Action Council, which provides eviction prevention as well as referrals for public assistance recipients.

The county, which has a population of about 210,000, handles an average of 4,721 welfare cases each month.

Those seeking assistance in Howard -- which has, at $54,348 a year, the state's highest median household income -- range from poor people in older, rural communities to middle-class wage-earners who have lost their jobs.

"It shows that the needy are everywhere," said Stephen Marz, the county Department of Social Services' assistant director for income maintenance.

Over the last several months, he has analyzed data from fiscal year 1991, 1992 and 1993, examining trends in demand for social service programs when the economy was weak.

During that period, the county reported:

* A 41.3 percent increase in food stamp cases. That includes a 66.9 percent increase in food stamp recipients who receive no cash grants from welfare, also known as the "working poor."

In fiscal year 1994, which began July 1, the average number of "working poor" households that receive food stamps each month has increased from 828 to 912.

* A 24.3 percent increase in Aid to Families with Dependent Children grants, which were disbursed to an average of 816 households each month in fiscal 1993.

* A 9 percent increase in Medicaid to an average of 2,312 households each month.

In addition, the number of county residents seeking state medical assistance soared from 6,383 in fiscal year 1991 to 11,982 in fiscal year 1993, at a time when state funding cuts reduced the number of eligible Medicaid recipients.

Howard County isn't alone.

Statewide, the demand for welfare aside from Medicaid increased 8 percent, and the number of people receiving Medicaid increased 14.1 percent from 1991 to 1993.

"I think the overall increase in the state's caseload is related to the current economic condition," said Michael Blum, director of the state Income Maintenance Administration's Office of Administrative Services.

That soaring demand came as the state began cutting benefits in welfare programs.

In his study, Mr. Marz cited a series of cuts, including a 4.8 percent reduction in AFDC grants, elimination of Medicaid to low-income individuals without children and to those in the Disability Assistance Loan Program.

Those cuts have hurt people such as Tina Major, a single mother in Ellicott City who receives a $321 grant each month through AFDC.

Her grant was cut $45 because she lives in a federally subsidized apartment. That was a state-mandated reduction, which began July 1, 1992, the beginning of fiscal year 1993.

Ms. Major is 26 years old and has been on assistance for two years. She has two sons -- 3-year-old Jeffrey Burgess and 1-year-old John Burgess -- and is working to earn her General Equivalency Diploma.

Her profile fits that of the state's typical AFDC recipient: a mother with two children and a 10th-grade education who first applied for assistance at age 24.

"I'm a single parent, single and struggling," Ms. Major said. "But I'll be all right. I'm not going to be on welfare all my life."

Another welfare recipient affected by the state benefits cuts is Scott Vivian, a 20-year-old who lived for a year in a tent behind Howard County Community College.

He now lives at the Grassroots homeless shelter in Columbia. In November, he applied for state medical assistance but was denied.

"I've got $7,000 in hospital bills and little to no income," said Mr. Vivian, complaining about the cuts to Medicaid that prevented him from qualifying for assistance.

The state cut his food stamp benefit in December. He is appealing.

Mr. Vivian lobbies with a group called the Coalition to End Hunger in Maryland to win more state assistance for welfare recipients.

He said one of the problems is that many people lose all of their public assistance benefits because they get a job that pays more money than the state allows them to have when receiving welfare benefits.

"One of the things we're trying to do is raise that maximum income," Mr. Vivian said. "Welfare for a lot of people cuts out when they get some income. That income is usually too low for them to live on."

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