On the road to self-sufficiency Selling old cars to welfare recipients is new wrinkle in welfare reform.

January 17, 1996

ANYONE WHOSE car got buried in a drift or trapped on a side street for a day or longer last week ought to now have a better understanding about how difficult it is for a welfare recipient to get and hold a job if he or she doesn't have a car.

In a recent survey by the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services, lack of transportation ranked second only to child care complications as the biggest obstacle to getting people off public assistance and into the work force. Not everyone lives along a bus or light rail line, and even those who do find that public transportation doesn't work with some kinds of employment, including jobs requiring night shifts.

There aren't many ways to help welfare recipients get their own cars, but Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary has come up with one that's so easy and sensible the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees local welfare programs, is urging other jurisdictions to copy it.

Mr. Gary's idea is now a new county program called "Wheels for Work." Instead of selling old automobiles retired from the county's fleet at public auction, the government is selling them for $200 to $500 to welfare recipients who want to work. The short-term cost to the county amounts to a relative pittance -- up to $300 less per car, plus another $600 or so to transfer the titles and put the vehicles on the road. The money saved by moving a family from welfare to the workplace more than offsets the extra $900 or so taxpayers would get if the county continued selling the cars to the highest bidder, especially if those who use these cars to get off public assistance stay off.

"Wheels for Work" is the latest in a list of innovative welfare reform initiatives in Anne Arundel, which has been named a national model for welfare reform. The Gary administration and social services officials in the county have a firm grip on reality in this area -- namely, that changes at the federal level mean benefits soon will be tied to a recipient's efforts to find work. They are doing what every Maryland jurisdiction should be doing: Preparing now for these changes with a wholesale transformation of local welfare from a check-dispensing agency to a full-service center geared to give people the tools they need to become self-sufficient.

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