Maryland recipients join the push for self-sufficiency

REWORKING WELFARE

Changes in law send a message: Get a job

February 02, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

In Baltimore, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is losing sleep as he listens to the clock, ticking away. As dawn breaks in Randallstown, Sheryl Lindsay finishes her shift, grateful that the unforgiving clock is not ticking for her.

Last month, the welfare time limit began running in Maryland, giving government officials five years to put half of their caseload of welfare recipients to work. If the march of time is agonizing for officeholders, it is ominous for Sheryl Lindsay and anyone who might ever have to fall back on public assistance.

Individuals will face a separate limit, one imposed for life. Recipients -- most of whom are women with children -- are eligible for cash assistance for a total of five years, and once they use up those 60 months, they will be taken from the rolls forever.

"This is the single most significant piece of social legislation I will see in my lifetime," says Catherine Born, associate professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore School of Social Work. "And we don't know what will happen or how people will be affected. We have to help them before that alarm clock rings."

Sixty-two years after its inception, the welfare system has been reinvented, defined by catchwords like self-sufficiency and personal responsibility that translate into a terse message: Get a job. Over the next few years, about 2 million welfare recipients are expected to go to work from a national caseload that now is about 4.6 million.

Whether it encourages parental responsibility and destroys a culture of dependency, as its proponents argue, or thrusts the poor and especially their children even deeper into despair and impoverishment, as its critics fear, welfare reform will affect nearly everyone.

Taxpayers, employers, social workers, working poor -- all will feel the effects as governments adjust their budgets, caseworkers metamorphose into employment counselors, welfare recipients enter the work force and those at the bottom of the pay scale compete harder for jobs.

Though long considered a Baltimore City problem, welfare is a growing statewide concern. The city once accounted for more than half the state's caseload, but that balance has shifted. Last October, 26,960 adults were receiving cash assistance in the city compared with 29,028 in the rest of the state. Baltimore, however, shoulders the burden of a weak economic base. The city is losing jobs while its suburbs are gaining them, and it already has large numbers of the working poor trying to make it on the low-wage, unskilled jobs that likely will be open to former welfare recipients.

"What worries me," Schmoke says, "is whether we can get these people employed and whether we can do it without displacing current workers."

Sheryl Lindsay's story resonates for many welfare recipients. "I've been working since I was 14," she says, beginning with a city program to put teen-agers to work.

Stuck at the low end

But Lindsay, 36, has been stuck at the low end of the payroll, ever vulnerable to disaster. After she was laid off as a dietitian's assistant in 1994, she was too poor to look for a job. She couldn't afford child care for her 3-year-old daughter on unemployment benefits of $110 a week. When that ran out in December 1994, she went on welfare.

Last year, Lindsay joined Project Independence, a Maryland welfare-to-work program that anticipated the federal requirements. The state gave her a bus pass and child-care money in addition to her grant of $292 a month plus $212 in food stamps.

Two months ago, job developers who work for city social services directed her to Be Our Guest Ltd. in Randallstown, caring for children with serious medical problems. She's worked there since Dec. 7, earning $6 an hour.

She works from midnight to 8 a.m., watching over the children at night, dressing them in the morning and giving them breakfast. Lindsay loves the job. She feels good helping the children, but the job has done even more for her.

Regaining control

"It's a great feeling to know I'm in control again," Lindsay says proudly. "I have the resources to make things happen in my household. I don't have to worry about whether my kids will eat."

No models exist to guide the shift of people that lies ahead.

"You haven't had this kind of influx into the labor market since the GIs returned from World War II," says Michael Laracy of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. "That was a boom economy, and those workers were highly valued."

Today's economy is less certain, and welfare recipients face numerous handicaps. Low-paying, entry-level jobs can trap them in poverty. Jobs often aren't located where those who need them live. And President Clinton's appeal for employers to pitch in and hire often runs up against unspoken doubts about the work ethic and skills of welfare recipients.

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