Welfare in Md. lowest since '70 Surprised officials credit strong economy and 1996 federal law

March 04, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Continuing a trend that has amazed lawmakers and bureaucrats, Maryland's welfare rolls have dropped to their lowest level in nearly three decades.

The number of people receiving state welfare benefits has decreased by more than 41 percent since 1995 -- from roughly 228,000 to just over 133,000 as of January, according to figures from the Department of Human Resources. That is the lowest figure since 1970.

In the past year, the welfare caseload has dropped by roughly 44,000 people, or 25 percent, defying more conservative official projections.

"It's a very pleasant surprise," said Alvin C. Collins, the state human resources secretary.

Collins and others said yesterday that two factors had produced the continuing decrease: Maryland's robust economy and the state's increased emphasis on work instead of public assistance brought on by the landmark federal welfare law passed in 1996.

The plummeting caseload has led to a major reduction in direct cash payments. The state and federal government are expected to spend $166 million on Maryland welfare benefits in the fiscal year that begins July 1 -- down from $234 million budgeted for this year.

Much of that savings, though, is being redirected to other programs, such as child care and job assistance, to help former recipients find work.

"It gives us the opportunity to reprogram the savings," Collins said.

Even as state officials bask in the continuing good news, they remain worried about a federally imposed deadline of Jan. 1, 1999, when thousands of recipients could lose their welfare benefits.

Under federal law, people who have been on welfare for two years will have their payments stopped then if they do not take part in some work -- in the private sector or in a government-funded program.

State officials say about 7,000 people will have to find jobs by next January or lose benefits.

Legislative analysts project that it could cost the state about $50 million a year to provide jobs and child care for people whose benefits would otherwise be expiring.

"We're winning the battle, but we haven't won the war," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat who chairs a Senate subcommittee that oversees the state's welfare budget.

Officials say the state will have an increasingly hard time moving people off welfare as the list is pared to the "hard-core" recipients who are more likely to have problems with drugs, alcohol or domestic abuse.

"The lower the caseload gets, the greater and more complex are the barriers the people face," said Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities, which lobbies on behalf of welfare recipients.

The real test for the state, Meade said, will be to keep former welfare recipients in jobs that pay decent wages over an extended period.

"The question is: How long can they sustain themselves in these low-wage, entry-level jobs?" Meade said.

State officials say they are planning more aggressive, hands-on efforts to help keep former welfare recipients in the work force.

Under one program, case workers would be in regular contact with former recipients to help them cope with problems such as transportation or child care that threaten their employment.

The General Assembly also is considering increased tax breaks to encourage businesses to hire welfare recipients.

Such companies already receive a smaller state tax subsidy, as well as a federal tax break.

In Baltimore, which has by far the most welfare recipients of any jurisdiction in the state, the reduction has been pronounced but less dramatic than elsewhere.

Since January 1995, when the rolls reached their historic peak, the city has seen its welfare rolls drop by 32 percent, to more than 72,000.

Pub Date: 3/04/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.