Life on the Public Dole

March 14, 1995

Perhaps state Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson will gain a new view of the welfare recipients he has demonized in the past. The loss of his private sector job is making times tough for him, he says, and the public treasury now provides his sole income.

A legislator's personal misfortune is not normally grist for editorial comment, but Mr. Ferguson's public comments regarding his lost income seem ironic in the wake of his successful campaign in Carroll and Frederick counties in which he often belittled the plight of the poor. Mr. Ferguson now acknowledges that it isn't easy to make ends meet on his $29,000 legislative pay -- triple what his family of four would receive on welfare. Unless he finds a job after the session, Mr. Ferguson says he may have to declare personal bankruptcy.

The senator is learning first-hand that the convergence of circumstances can sometimes have a sudden and devastating impact on one's life. Before he was elected to the General Assembly, Mr. Ferguson was an independent contractor with IBM Federal Systems, a defense company. IBM sold that division to Loral, and the new management began laying off employees and discontinuing the use of independent contractors. As a result, Mr. Ferguson's income of about $75,000 shrank rapidly.

If Mr. Ferguson were not a legislator and had to apply for welfare, he first would have to liquidate any assets (with the exception of his house) worth more than $1,000. This includes equity in any automobiles, cash value of life insurance and balances in bank, brokerage and mutual accounts.

Were he deemed eligible for welfare, his assistance payment would average about $3.75 a day per person -- an annual income of $5,475. His family would also receive food stamps worth about $2.39 per person per day. That translates to $67 a week to spend on food. Yet Mr. Ferguson would have to lose $12,000 off his legislative salary to fall below the state poverty line of $17,712. Even with rental assistance of $330 a month (which one in four welfare recipients receive), the income of welfare families falls below the state poverty standard. We don't know whether his personal plight will sensitize Mr. Ferguson, but even he admits he can supplement his diet in ways no welfare recipient can -- by feasting on the free food available at nightly legislative receptions in Annapolis.

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