Gary takes a bad rap over Wheels for Work


January 21, 1996|By Elise Armacost

LAST WEEK, Tom Marr, a conservative radio talk show host on Baltimore's WCBM, blasted Anne Arundel County Executive John Gary's new "Wheels for Work" program as "The Great Liberal Giveaway," which would be hilarious were it not so unfair.

Mr. Marr has to be the first person ever to use the words "liberal" and "John Gary" in the same sentence.

Attila Lite?

Years ago, Mr. Gary sponsored some home-schooling legislation the General Assembly, and he's been stuck with a just-to-the-right-of-Attila-the-Hun reputation ever since. That stereotype has given way to a more realistic image since, as executive, he's shown a genuine interest in social issues and failed to fulfill predictions that he would turn the Arundel Center into a pulpit for helping the rest of us get religion. Mr. Gary, it seems, has a bit more of the Democrat in him than a lot of people thought.

A flaming liberal, however, he is not, any more than Wheels for Work -- which makes old county cars available to welfare recipients who want to work -- is a giveaway.

Nobody's giving these people anything. Folks who qualify are paying at least $500 for the cars -- just a few dollars less than taxpayers would get if the county kept selling them to the highest bidder. And even those who qualify can't just ask to buy a car and drive away with one.

"This is not the 'Come to the Department of Social Services and we'll give you a car' program," says Anne Arundel DSS Deputy Director Vesta Kimble. "You not only have to be eligible, but we have to believe you have found a job, and we have to believe the only reason you can't accept that job is because you have no means of transportation. If you have another reason on top of that, you aren't going to get the car."

We are not talking about Lexuses here. These are the kinds of cars you get when you answer a newspaper ad that says, "Runs good." But they are a blessing for poor people trying to get jobs but with no way to get there -- people who can't find a car that moves for a price they can afford or a seller willing to let them pay in installments; who can't afford bus or cab fares, who don't live along public transportation routes and aren't in a position to pick up and move.

In the short term, Wheels for Work will cost taxpayers a little -- the difference, if any, between what the county would have gotten at auction and what buyers will pay, plus about $600 per car for repairs, title transfers and two months' worth of insurance. In the long term, it will cost taxpayers nothing, because they save far more by getting people off public assistance than they'll spend to help them get these cars.

Isn't that what hard-core conservatives such as Mr. Marr want -- to get people off welfare?

It's certainly what people he'd label "bleeding hearts" want. Local DSS workers aren't whining about the prospect of ending welfare as we know it, of pushing harder to have applicants for benefits find a job. They think the current system stinks, and they're not waiting around for Congress to act before they change the way they handle welfare locally.

The laws and rules governing federal and state welfare money drive people like Ms. Kimble nuts. Here's an example:

Right now the feds provide local governments with money to be used specifically for cab and bus fares so welfare recipients can get to and from job training sites. Anne Arundel gets about $40,000. But, Ms. Kimble says, not only is that insufficient to meet the need, but once people finish their training, there's no money to help them afford transportation to an actual job.

Local DSS officials, with the support of the Gary administration, have been doing their best to work around these counterproductive rules. They've accepted that it's a matter of time before Congress imposes lifetime limits on welfare benefits and are preparing applicants accordingly. No more handing out cash just because someone qualifies. Now, every applicant for welfare benefits in Anne Arundel promptly is sent out to look for work and told to return with names of the employers they've contacted and the dates they contacted them.

Succumbing easily to the obstacles to finding and holding a job is not allowed. DSS officials will help people find affordable day care, complete their GEDs, go after spouses who aren't paying child support and, yes, help them buy cars before they hand over a check.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services has named Anne Arundel one of eight models for welfare reform nationwide. Just as taxpayers should know when their local government is making a mess of things, so should they know when their jurisdiction is out in front, on the right track, on an important issue.

Let us hope that Mr. Marr's erroneous rantings were merely a reflection of his ignorance about what really is happening with welfare here. The alternative -- that some people begrudge those struggling to make their own way a helping hand even if it costs them nothing -- is too ugly to contemplate.

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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