Welfare shift has officials hopeful Job supply is good for recipients who are forced to go to work

April 06, 1997|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Welfare reform has begun to take shape across Maryland, and Carroll officials are cautiously optimistic about their task of guiding people from dependency to self-sufficiency.

Compared with more urban areas in the state, the Carroll numbers are manageable, particularly because the county has low unemployment and entry-level jobs for people coming off public assistance are increasing.

"We're going to pull all our resources together to make it happen, and we're lucky that the economy is fairly good," said David R. Ensor, an assistant director with the county Department of Social Services.

The federal government's welfare reform initiative, which took effect in October, requires states to put 25 percent of their welfare recipients to work this year and increase that to 50 percent in five years.

In Carroll County, where 316 families are receiving Temporary Cash Assistance -- formerly called Aid to Families With Dependent Children -- 176 recipients must find jobs within 18 months or work in government-created community service jobs.

Other local families on welfare are not subject to the time limits because they have exemptions for such reasons as disabilities and caring for infants.

Under federal law, welfare recipients are limited to two consecutive years of cash payments and are restricted to a total of five years on the welfare rolls over a lifetime.

"The whole concept we're trying to instill in our customers is, 'We're paying you a salary, and your job is to find work, and if you don't, we'll find something for you to do,' " Ensor said.

Welfare recipients couldn't be entering the job market at a better time, said James A. Mayola, manager of the Westminster office of the state Division of Employment and Training.

The unemployment rate in Carroll was 4.9 percent in February, the latest figure available, compared with 6.1 percent at the same time last year.

While unemployment is declining, the number of entry-level jobs in Carroll is increasing, Mayola said, a fortunate combination for job-hunting welfare recipients.

"It's tougher for employers to attract people," he said. "People they might have thought twice about hiring before, they might give that person a shot and be willing to train people with less experience."

Job listings soar

A few years ago, the state's weekly job listing service for Carroll County -- which includes openings in private industry -- generally had 100 to 120 entry-level positions. Mayola said that number has tripled and that there are more jobs that don't require a high school diploma or work experience, qualifications many welfare recipients lack.

The jobs typically pay $5.50 to $9.50 an hour.

"This is where you start, and there's always the chance for advancement," Mayola said.

Social services officials say they recognize the financial limits of entry-level positions and hope to increase the chances of a successful transition from welfare to work by extending health and day-care benefits, emphasizing child-support collections and offering other support to former recipients.

"It's almost like we have to create a support system where people have the supports they used to have from an extended family," said George W. Giese, director of Carroll's Department of Social Services.

For example, if a newly employed former welfare recipient has a sick child, the department will send a home health nurse to the parent's home to care for the child.

'A little bit of help'

There are plans to have case managers work informally with clients as they begin new jobs, to suggest solutions to transportation or day-care problems or to offer moral support.

"Sometimes they just need a little bit of help to continue on their own," said Ann Moore, a supervisor with the department. "We're helping these people change their lives and become independent, whereas before what we were doing was processing applications."

For the past year, looking toward welfare reform, welfare applicants in Carroll have been required to look for work while waiting for their aid applications to be processed, which can take up to a month.

Caseload drops

State officials say similar initiatives across the state have resulted in decreased welfare caseloads. In January, the state Department of Human Resources reported that Carroll's caseload had dropped from 1,741 welfare recipients in January 1995 to 1,313 recipients in November 1996, a decrease of almost 25 percent. Statewide, welfare caseloads have been reduced by 22 percent, officials said.

Advocates for the poor say it isn't clear that people are finding jobs that will allow them to stay off welfare.

In Carroll, welfare recipients who need help looking for jobs are referred to the Day One course at the county's Business and Employment Resource Center (BERC), which is operated through the federally funded Job Training Partnership Act.

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