Welfare reform: now, the hard part Crunch time: Easy phase of implementing 2-year-old overhaul of welfare system is ending.

September 09, 1998

TOUGH WORK requirements that go into effect Jan. 1 mean that Baltimore will have to find work, or allow exemptions for 9,000 people now receiving public assistance. Statewide, 15,772 residents are affected.

How Maryland and the other states manage these welfare cases will indicate how the richest nation in the world treats its less-fortunate citizens. We anticipate it will be a mixture of some getting adequate help and landing decent jobs and training, with others joining the homeless.

Fortunately, the issue has the attention of officials and leaders charged with administering the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Widely publicized examples of early successes might have led to a belief by many that the problem is resolved.

Politicians and welfare officials, from the president down, have not been shy about touting the statistics and personal success stories, the 37 percent drop in the welfare caseload from 14.4 million to 9 million in four years and the numbers reported to have moved into jobs and greater self-sufficiency.

Social policy experts have pointed out that much of the success has come from skimming the cream -- putting to work motivated people who have previous work experience and lack physical and mental handicaps or substance abuse problems.

A state human resources department study noted the majority of adults leaving Maryland's welfare rolls "have a demonstrated attachment to the labor force." About 107,000 -- 41 percent -- dropped off the rolls since 1995.

However, the state study warned that even those who no longer receive state assistance -- the easy cases -- have histories of needing help.

This is especially true as another deadline for recipients approaches: the federally mandated five-year cut-off of cash benefits. An economic downturn and loss of jobs and training, for example, would make people already vulnerable even more so.

A key to welfare reform has been the innovation it forced on many states.

If states were separated into good guys and bad guys, Maryland would be on the side of the angels, ranked alongside states that historically provide more aid to their poor -- New York and Michigan -- than the likes of Alabama and Mississippi.

Reform has allowed the states to be creative and experiment with different ideas.

Some have been slower than others in taking advantage of the opportunity. Maryland has not, encouraging local governments to innovate. Anne Arundel County, for instance, started a van transportation system to ferry workers to jobs, a program emulated by other jurisdictions.

In Frederick County, vocational education students repair cars that are given to welfare recipients to commute to work.

Now comes the real challenge. The easier-to-place clients have jobs, helped along by the booming economy. What happens when the economic slide comes?

Will the goodwill of people with plenty of money in their pockets, the beneficiaries of the booming economy, turn on those on the dole by opposing adequate help, as has happened before? How will the less fortunate fare when businesses that are currently so generous with their jobs no longer have jobs to offer?

Crunch time will test us all.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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