Former welfare mother sees hope in reform bill But she also worries that promised jobs may not materialize

April 01, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

As a former welfare mother who now works full time, Jasmine Gunthorpe has mixed feelings about a Maryland state Senate proposal that aims to put welfare clients to work within two years.

On one hand, she feels the refreshing winds of change blowing down some of the outmoded traditions of the welfare system -- requirements, she says, that forced women on assistance to "live double lives" and relinquish control over their destinies.

On the other hand -- from experience -- Ms. Gunthorpe wonders where all the jobs will come from.

Proponents say the bill, passed by a unanimous vote of the Senate last week, would radically change the state's welfare system, forcing clients to get jobs or be placed in community service positions within two years. It would transfer much responsibility to the state's local social-service agencies, allowing them to base decisions more on individual circumstances and needs.

The proposal -- which is too be considered by the House of Delegates, where its fate is uncertain -- also would do away with some of the timeworn language of the welfare system -- calling what is now the state's Aid to Families with Dependent Children program a "Family Investment Plan," for example -- and some of the practices that advocates for the poor have long believed were counterproductive.

It would maintain the possibility of cash entitlements for those who could not find a job, but only as a last resort.

"My concern is, what about those people who are going to fall through the cracks?" said the Rev. Thomas Herbert Hagin, a regional organizer for the Maryland Food Committee.

When Ms. Gunthorpe moved to Baltimore from the Virgin Islands 3 1/2 years ago, she had a newborn and 6-year-old twin boys to support. With three years of college and about 20 years of work experience, she thought she'd have no problem finding a job.

She was wrong. After unemployment benefits ran out in early 1993, she went on welfare. But even then, Ms. Gunthorpe said, her caseworker couldn't offer her any job prospects either.

Only after volunteering at her children's school in the Harlem Park neighborhood in West Baltimore did Ms. Gunthorpe learn about a paid position as a liaison between parents and the school. That work, in turn, led to her current job with St. Pius V Housing Committee Inc., a community development corporation that manages units in Harlem Park.

Recently, St. Pius notified the community that three positions might come open. Through one contact alone, Ms. Gunthorpe said, she received applications from 21 people.

"So you do your two years, you do your community service, you still don't get a job, and then what happens?" the 40-year-old mother asked. "If the jobs are not there, then you've really created even more discouragement."

As if to answer those concerns, the Department of Human Resources, which runs the state's public-assistance programs, announced it is mailing an employer marketing survey to more than 100,000 businesses in an attempt to link Maryland's 80,000 welfare families with jobs. Businesses should start receiving the surveys this week.

Research for the department by the University of Baltimore's Regional Economic Studies Program indicates that entry-level jobs -- the only kind for which many welfare clients would be qualified -- were created in Maryland at a faster rate last year than in 1994. Michael A. Conte, director of the university program, said he expects that trend to continue for the next two years.

"The research we have done shows that a significant proportion of those who will be required to participate in work-related activities will be able to find jobs in Maryland, depending on where they're located," Dr. Conte said. "One of the things I suspect will happen is that the welfare-reform legislation will increase the interest on the part of welfare recipients in finding a job, and that in itself will help facilitate the process."

Dr. Conte acknowledged that many of the new jobs would be outside Baltimore, home to half the state's welfare clients.

But Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican who worked on the measure, said the bill's flexibility would allow local social service agencies to arrange transportation if necessary. The bill also would do away with a requirement that clients not own a car worth more than $1,500, because a car can be vital to keeping a job.

Ms. Gunthorpe was particularly enthusiastic about one of the proposed changes, which would allow support for families with two parents in the home, in some cases. Historically, AFDC has gone only to single parents, which provided a financial incentive for some families to split up.

The key if the bill passes, she said, is for caseworkers to be well-trained in the new philosophy that each client's needs are different.

"Now you're requiring that [clients] respond to your standards," she said. "Your responsibility is to ensure that they can."

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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