Changing welfare as we know it Foreseeing the inevitable, local officials aren't waiting on welfare reform.

November 13, 1995

RATHER THAN take a wait and see attitude, the Howard County Department of Social Services has begun preparing for national welfare reform changes that appear imminent. That makes sense.

Although Congress hasn't agreed on what welfare reform should look like, it appears that whatever President Clinton ends up signing into law will place greater responsibility on the states. And the states can be expected to pass much of that burden on to the local level.

Howard is an affluent county, but it does have poor people. Its Department of Social Services client list currently includes about 3,000 recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and 4,500 food stamp recipients.

Efforts such as the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Baltimore Housing Authority may further disperse the region's impoverished to suburban counties, including Howard. But even without such extraordinary measures, the county can expect more poor people to flee urban settings and seek the lifestyle opportunities available in the suburbs.

County welfare officials recently met with the state Senate welfare reform committee and asked that Howard be given a block grant rather than its usual annual welfare allocation. That funding method would mirror the approach Congress seems to want to take in making the states more responsible for welfare.

With the block grant, the county would have the autonomy to determine how it wants to spend the money. It would not be constrained by current state rules and regulations. That's the good part. However, the success of the block grant approach, just as on the national level, will depend on whether the grant is large enough to cover the county's needs.

One thing Howard County would like to do is start a "work-first" program such as the one being piloted in Anne Arundel County. Child care is being provided to welfare recipients there so they can look for work. In January, Anne Arundel will open a "jobs center," where welfare recipients can find job listings, phone banks and help writing their resumes.

It is good not to wait for welfare reform to happen, but to put in place programs that take advantage of the greater flexibility that state and local agencies are being promised. Of course, those promises must be kept.

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