Tough talk about finding work while hundreds lose their jobs

February 11, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- As so many of us have learned to hate the poor in this country, Gov. Parris Glendening wins big political points with last week's announcement that he wishes to overhaul welfare and make those lowlifes find jobs like the rest of us.

Oops.

Did somebody mention jobs?

On the very day legislation was introduced here designed to force half of Maryland's welfare recipients to work for a living, more than 400 people gathered at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood, where they stood in an unemployment line for hours. Once, they worked for Merry-Go-Round, which had 1,500 stores across America and a charismatic owner called Boogie and horizons that seemed spectacularly unlimited.

But now, at the end of a torturous and humiliating couple of years, the company's gone belly up, and these 400 people (and thousands more like them) were out of work.

Then we had, on this same day as the Glendening welfare-to-work announcement, which was a model of sensitive timing, the news from Park Circle in Northwest Baltimore. Raymond V. Haysbert, owner of Parks Sausage, employer of 210 people and struggling to keep his company solvent, thought he had a deal to sell Parks to TLC Beatrice International.

Parks Sausage is Baltimore's biggest black-owned manufacturer and a source of great historic pride. But it's been cash-poor for months. TLC Beatrice International is the New York-based company originally formed by Reginald Lewis, the Baltimore native who outgrew an impoverished childhood and became one of the wealthiest people in the country. Lewis died three years ago. Now, we're told, the deal to buy Parks Sausage fell apart because TLC couldn't get financing.

Then, on this same day of the governor's welfare proposal, we had the news from Westinghouse Electric. On the surface, not too bad. The company may add as many as 250 jobs at its Linthicum complex. Applause, applause. Except for this: Over the past eight years, in the state of Maryland alone, Westinghouse has eliminated 9,000 jobs -- more than half its work force.

So, yes, let's put these welfare folks to work, and never mind those from Merry-Go-Round or Parks Sausage or Westinghouse who might replace them on welfare rolls. (Talk about your merry-go-round!) Money's too tight to be blowing it on poor people, especially when Americans have been taught to distrust the poor, and most especially when we've got ballparks to finance for football teams which will then keep most of the stadium income for themselves or threaten to blow town and find the next round of municipal suckers.

There are, at last count, about 80,000 welfare families across Maryland. In the modern context, we declare them fraudulent until proven otherwise. It matters not that, in Baltimore County, for example, a welfare mother with two children receives about $685 a month to sustain her family. This is seen as the lap of luxury. It matters not that welfare represents only 2 percent of the state's annual budget. This is seen as the essence of waste.

So, under the governor's plan, there would be a five-year lifetime limit on an individual's right to receive welfare, but those recipients unable to find work after two years would be forced into community service jobs.

It's a variation of a plan expected to be launched out of Washington. And, on the surface, there seems a certain fairness. You want help from the community (tax dollars to support your family), you give the community some help in return.

But, what kind of help? The community service jobs often mentioned involve church-centered baby-sitting jobs. Do we have 80,000 such jobs? No? Then, what else? Do we put people to work collecting trash? Working on road crews? Cleaning up parks?

If we do this, do we then have the leaders of cash-strapped municipalities, such as the city of Baltimore, thinking, "We've got this new low-cost labor pool, why not take advantage of it by laying off some of our full-timers, and thus saving a bundle?" Do we, somewhere down the road, have the various captains of private industry asking welfare officials, "You need -- wink, wink -- community service positions? I'll take a few of these folks" -- and conveniently let them replace low-skilled full-time employees making slightly more than minimum wage.

News note: A recent University of Baltimore study pointed out that, in the city of Baltimore, the number of low-skilled jobs declined by 2,000 -- in the past year.

So here's one more worry. Could working people lose jobs to those currently on welfare? Nobody would say as much, of course. It's just that, one day you're making $22,000 working for, say, the Dept. of Public Works. And the next day, after they've pulled in some welfare recipient who's doing community service to keep qualifying for $685 a month in benefits, your job's coincidentally been eliminated.

Nobody's crazy about welfare. The question is: In an economy where people are losing jobs, (and a new study says 46 percent of Marylanders are worried about losing jobs), those in the statehouse looking to get tough on welfare need to make sure they're not forcing thousands out of welfare, only to force thousands more into it.

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