Food pantries get more business Catonsville, Dundalk sites attribute rise to welfare reform

November 01, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

National welfare reform efforts have sparked a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking food from the Dundalk and Catonsville pantries of the Community Assistance Network, agency officials say.

The steep rise began in April, and in September brought 376 households to CAN's two pantries, a total of 1,002 people, the group reported. In contrast, the pantries served 116 households for a total of 298 people in September 1996.

"The numbers have gone way up, a lot of homeless people, single parents, people trying to get off welfare or with minimum-wage jobs and the elderly on fixed incomes," said Charles Bosley, CAN's food coordinator.

But officials at other private and public social service agencies say they have seen a more modest increase in demand for food and are cautious about attributing that rise solely to changes in national welfare policy.

"We heard there was a heavy demand for food when the new rules took effect about a year ago, but we've not heard a lot since then," said Camille B. Wheeler, Baltimore County's social service director.

She agreed that more people are being denied assistance under the new welfare rules, particularly those considered able-bodied and available for work. However, Wheeler said, "programs are all here for those people who are motivated to become something, who have ambition."

The federal law that took effect last year requires welfare recipients -- the government estimates 10.5 million people -- to go to work.

Maryland follows federal law, which says adults can receive two years of cash assistance. After that, they must work or do community service to continue receiving benefits for a maximum of three more years, said Linda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities. Childrencan receive assistance to age 18.

Robert P. Gajdys, director of CAN, said changes in eligibility for welfare, food stamps and supplemental Social Security programs are creating a potentially dangerous social situation.

"We see people not eating as much or as well, particularly people on fixed incomes," said Gajdys, also president of the 17-member Maryland Association of Community Action Agencies. "We're seeing evictions and people making choices among rent, utilities, food and medicine. Poverty is increasing."

Gajdys said that his agency has seen a steady increase in people seeking food assistance since April and that 62 percent of them are first-timers. He expects that trend to continue.

But Valerie Brown, agency relations director for the Maryland Food Bank, suggested that CAN's increase results from the fact that it is Baltimore County's largest such agency, while the city, for instance, is served by a number of organizations.

The Food Bank supplies foodstuffs to 972 programs such as CAN around the state. Brown said preliminary figures show demand up about 30 percent over last year -- larger than usual but not unexpected given the federal changes, she said.

She and other advocates for the poor say much of the new demand seems to be from the "working poor," people who have low-paying jobs and need the supplementary food to make ends meet. Some also may be people who have been denied supplementary Social Security benefits, including alcoholics and drug addicts.

Welfare reform has been "administratively and financially successful," Brown said, but the government did not take into account that even though people are off welfare they frequently do not become self-sufficient. However, the government is planning to provide more supplementary assistance to ease the strain, she said.

Wheeler, the county's social service director said that while the welfare caseload is declining, more people are receiving food stamps and medical assistance because they can qualify while working.

Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. -- both of whom are on CAN's board of directors -- said they see welfare reform as successful nationwide and are not aware of dramatic increases in complaints from advocates for the poor to their offices.

But Bosley, CAN's food coordinator, said that the group sees many people who have been referred from the county's social services department, which cannot help under the new rules. Until this year families could come to the pantry for food once every three months; now it is a monthly distribution, he said.

To encourage people to seek independence, CAN two weeks ago started to notify people who have been on the rolls at least six months about a new class in budgeting, "how to use whatever resources they have to become self-sufficient," Bosley said.

"There hasn't been a big response; a lot of people are not motivated. Some people even come in here demanding things as a right. We don't mind a giving a hand up, but not a handout," Bosley said.

Those who do not attend the class will be penalized by being given food only once every three months, he said.

Pub Date: 11/01/97

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