Finding jobs is a tall order for Baltimore Welfare reform poses a daunting challenge

February 16, 1997|By Kurt L. Schmoke

LAST AUG. 22, President Clinton made good his promise to "end welfare as we know it" by signing into law the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996." He heralded the new law as "the beginning of a new era in which welfare will become what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life."

Like many big-city mayors, I believe that changes in the welfare system were long overdue. I agree wholeheartedly with the president that it ought to be a system that is transitional and moves people to independence, not to prolonged dependence. Too often, the old welfare system failed on both counts. Even as I recognize the failings of the old system, I know that we face a daunting challenge in implementing the new welfare reform law in Baltimore.

Under the new law, almost all adult welfare recipients must find work or be in some kind of "work activity" (such as on-the-job training or a government-subsidized community service job) within two years or they lose their benefits. Further, the law sets a lifetime public assistance limit of five years for most individuals. For Baltimore, that's a tall order indeed.

Baltimore carries almost half the state's welfare caseload, about 33,000 cases. From January 1995 to November 1996, reflecting national trends, that caseload declined by almost 17 percent. Even if this downward trend continues, and even allowing for the 20 percent of those who can be exempted under the law, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services forecasts that we still will have to find jobs or work activities for an estimated 12,500 people by January 1, 1999.

Two factors further complicate this task. Baltimore has the highest unemployment rate in the state (6.7 percent). As of last December, more than 21,000 unemployed people were actively looking for work. The city also has the state's highest percentage of people who have been on welfare five years or longer (26 percent of our caseload), and studies show that the longer people are on welfare, the more problems they have getting off.

The magnitude of the challenge before us in finding work for so many people who have relied on public assistance is giving me a lot of sleepless nights. These aren't just numbers. These numbers reflect real people with real problems, real needs, and real hopes for a better life for themselves and their children.

I'm concerned about whether the new law truly will enable them to achieve a better life, or whether it will drive them deeper into poverty. I'm concerned about day care, transportation and worker-displacement issues.

My overarching concern is that, given the rate of job growth in Baltimore in recent years, there are simply not enough jobs to absorb all the people who will be moved off the welfare rolls within the short period stipulated by the law.

According to the Regional and Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University, the rate of job growth in 1995 in the types of industries and businesses that can absorb low-skill, entry-level workers was 0.6 percent in Baltimore City, and 1.5 percent in the Baltimore region.

Twelve other mayors and I met with Clinton in December to discuss some of our concerns and deepest fears about implementing the new welfare law. The president expressed his confidence that with a growing economy and strong cooperation among local and state governments and the private sector, we can succeed in moving large numbers of people off the welfare rolls. He made it clear that he wanted us to do everything we could to make the law work. Based on his expression of confidence, I am committed to doing all that I can to make it work.

I have told my agency heads that we have to show employers that hiring people coming off welfare makes good business sense. Businesses can benefit directly through their eligibility for state and federal tax credits if they hire welfare recipients, as well as through grant diversion. Under grant diversion, the public assistance check goes directly to the employer willing to train and hire a welfare recipient. There are a host of indirect benefits for businesses when they hire people on public assistance.

As more people move from welfare to work, they will be contributing to the city's tax base and improving communities.

By making people more self-sufficient and productive, the entire city gains.

Since the law went into effect in October, the heads of the city's human services agencies have been working aggressively to move people from welfare to work.

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