Experiment in changing welfare strives for self-sufficient families HELPING PEOPLE FIND THEIR PIECE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM

August 07, 1994|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Samala Mason and Douglas "Squirt" Blake might seem a classic case of young people headed for poverty.

Sam, 18, unmarried and pregnant, product of a broken home, lived with her mother and sister in Freetown Village, a public housing complex in Anne Arundel County. Doug, 21, a high school dropout, unskilled and unemployed, lived with various relatives.

They wanted to get married but delayed their plans so Sam would qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and medical benefits. It seemed the only option.

But they wanted the American dream. They talked about getting married, finding jobs and, "in five or six years," buying a house. They understood the dream but lacked the skills and resources to get it.

They were perfect for Edward R. Bloom's experiment.

Mr. Bloom, director of the county's social services, envisioned a program to help welfare applicants achieve self-sufficiency in just six months. He called it the Community-Directed Assistance Program (C-DAP).

The idea was to match dozens of families with churches and community groups that would help them find jobs, housing and transportation, using money the families would have received in monthly AFDC checks. He wanted to help the families "before they became caught up in the welfare cycle."

It is a bold step. Success could bring about a new way of looking at welfare. Reformers elsewhere agree the program sounds intriguing, but some question whether it can be duplicated or expanded to serve thousands of people applying for public assistance.

Social workers found fewer "motivated" candidates than they had hoped. Community sponsors were even harder to come by. More than two months into the project, only one had committed: Second Chance Ministry, a Christian community service organization.

Another month passed before Second Chance had a match -- Sam and Doug.

A team of seven, headed by the Rev. Hulan Marshall, signed on to guide them on the path to self-sufficiency. A grant of $4,400, the equivalent of a year's worth of AFDC payments, would be turned over to the sponsors in three installments to cover expenses.

"This is what we do," said Mr. Marshall, explaining Second Chance's mission. "We help people toward self-sufficiency. It's tremendous to have the government work with us as partners."

Within days, the team was combing classified ads for leads on apartments. Mr. Marshall called business contacts looking for job openings.

At the Department of Social Services' Learning Center on West Street, Annapolis, team members sat around a table, talking to Sam and Doug about keeping a budget, getting life insurance, looking for medical benefits, registering for parenting classes.

Since dropping out of high school five years ago, Doug had held a half-dozen jobs, mostly low-paying. Sam's life goals centered on having a baby and moving out of her mother's apartment by the time she was 18.

Until C-DAP came along, they'd been drifting, moving from one relative to another. Now, they were being asked to stay on course, to start -- in tangible ways -- working toward the American dream. Social workers, church leaders, parents, friends -- all had advice.

Sam and Doug were coping, each in their own way. Sam, petite, quiet and introverted, often sat expressionless, eyes downcast, during meetings. She seemed content to let Doug do the talking. And Doug, a big, good-natured guy is, if nothing else, a talker.

Sporting a shirt and tie and diamond earrings in both ears, he seemed to enjoy his newfound celebrity. The attention didn't bother him.

"I think this has given us more self-confidence," he said. "It's made us much more hopeful we're really going to achieve something."

At the request of his sponsors, Doug had prepared a list of estimates for repairs to his 1981 Cutlass Brougham. It needed a new engine, and he needed transportation if he found a job.

Samuel Hawkins, treasurer of Second Chance Ministry and charged with overseeing expenditures, scanned Doug's neatly written figures.

"You've done an excellent job with these estimates," he said. After weighing the options, the group decided on a rebuilt engine costing $704, including labor. Doug smiled.

But it wasn't the car that had him beaming.

He and Sam were getting married in 10 days.


Ed Bloom is frustrated.

He's frustrated with government bureaucracy and social programs that don't work, infuriated by a welfare system that breaks up families.

"The current system is anti-family," he said. "Families come for help, and they're ineligible. They go away and come back a couple months later. The only difference is now the father's gone. Then they get benefits. We see it happen time and time again."

He wants to keep families together. Couples like Sam and Doug shouldn't have to separate to get help for their baby. They'd be better served as a family, working together to overcome poverty, he said.

Sam and Doug didn't hesitate when given the choice of C-DAP over traditional AFDC.

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