Last year's federal edict giving welfare recipients two years to find employment has transformed the Howard County office of the state Department of Social Services into a job placement agency.
And it's an agency that's having some success.
The county DSS office's caseload fell 36 percent, from 2,843 recipients in January 1995 to 1,818 this February.
About 750 of those people voluntarily removed themselves or no longer qualified for welfare, mirroring a statewide trend, Howard DSS officials said.
But county officials are most eager to point to 250 of their former welfare recipients who have been funneled into jobs.
The number of welfare recipients finding jobs is expected to increase with Jobs First, a county program that began in January, which changed the emphasis of the agency from training to employment.
"It feels good having a job," said Danita Thomas, 23, of Columbia's Kings Contrivance village. The mother of four children -- ages 1, 2 and twin 4-year-olds -- has been working part time for the DSS as an office assistant since February, work she found through Jobs First. She was hired full-time this month.
"All of my friends had good jobs and came from supportive families," said Thomas, who is also a first-year student at Howard Community College. "I was the only one on welfare with a bunch of kids."
While there have been early success stories, such as Thomas, the test for Howard's welfare-to-work effort will be in the private sector, where welfare recipients are beginning to apply for jobs, say elected officials, business leaders and social service advocates.
About 60 employers have signed up with the Jobs First program.
The program is Howard's response to the federal welfare-to-work legislation, which was passed in August and sets a two-year time limit for welfare recipients to find jobs and limits their lifetime welfare eligibility to five years.
A $153,000 grant from the state created Jobs First and an additional $333,000 saved by a declining caseload continues to fund it.
This means that money that historically has been used by DSS offices for training clients -- which sometimes takes from nine months to two years -- is now being used to funnel them directly into jobs.
To entice employers to hire welfare recipients, Jobs First has been offering tax credits, training subsidies and transportation assistance.
Getting the first job
"The most positive step toward earning a living-wage job is to get that first job," said state Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Clarksville Republican and chairman of the Senate subcommittee on welfare reform, who endorses Howard's program.
"A job teaches punctuality, how to get along with workers, how to overcome setbacks. You can't get that from training," Madden said.
Some business owners said they are willing to enroll in the Jobs First program because it offers them a ready pool of employees, which saves them the money it would cost to hire a placement agency or place a classified ad.
The expectation is that Howard County's private sector will respond warmly to Jobs First's efforts because -- with the county's unemployment rate at 2.8 percent, second lowest among the state's 24 jurisdictions -- such entry-level positions as clerical, retail and food service are plentiful, business leaders said.
By contrast, the state unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, and the federal rate is 5.9 percent.
In Howard, "the labor force is so tight, employers have to be especially creative in how they fill their positions," said Richard Story, executive director of the Economic Development Authority.
"I expect the reception to run the gamut from the skeptical and unwilling to the enthusiastic," he said.
Low unemployment rate
Howard's relatively low unemployment rate means that only 3,522 workers of the county's 127,917 total employable population are unemployed, Story said.
"We have seen a tremendous shortage of people in Howard for minimum-wage but good jobs," he said. "It'll be a perfect fit for people coming off of welfare."
Columbia Bank has hired six former welfare recipients through DSS as tellers, operation clerks and statement clerks.
The bank is currently interviewing candidates from the Jobs First program, said Sheryl Bruff, the bank's vice president of human resources.
Learning a work ethic
Before hiring her first worker from DSS, Bruff said she had the same concern as she expects other employers to have: What kind of work ethic will former welfare recipients have?
"I was concerned about their motivation and their skills. I wondered if 'the system' sucked the life out of them," Bruff said. "But I was struck by [the workers'] enthusiasm. Their hearts are in what they are doing."
Columbia Bank employee Barbara Sewell, 31, of Columbia's Oakland Mills village, said her job handling bank statements is her starting point to becoming self-sufficient.