Public help backs jobs Welfare reform plan's 2nd phase due this year

Grants helping individuals

Employees get chance to better selves at work

November 12, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

As Howard County's welfare caseload continues to dwindle, social service officials are stepping up efforts to keep people off welfare through a number of job training and mentor programs.

Later this year, Howard's Department of Social Services will enact the second phase of its welfare reform initiative by offering on-the-job training classes designed to take former welfare recipients to a higher level and help them earn salary increases and promotions.

Officials hope to build on the success of current initiatives such as the welfare avoidance grant program, a state effort to move people toward financial independence.

Established as part of welfare reform legislation in 1996, grants help welfare recipients and people who are applying for welfare with a lump-sum payment used to find or keep employment.

Caseworkers recommend the grants to clients whose cases can be dealt with quickly, with money for job-related problems such as car repairs or car insurance, tools, or uniforms or professional clothing demanded by an employer.

In Howard, about 60 grants have been issued in the past two years. Only a small number of recipients have returned to seek public assistance, according to officials in Howard's Department of Social Services.

From October 1996 through July, 1,568 grants were awarded statewide, including seven in Baltimore, 81 in Anne Arundel County, 73 in Balti- more County, 32 in Carroll County, 122 in Harford County and 49 in Howard County.

State officials say the program has been successful, although a large number of the 1,568 recipients -- 630 -- later applied for welfare.

Linda Fox, deputy assistant director of programs for the state Department of Human Resources, said, "We try to use the [grants] appropriately by targeting clients that we think will be able to move on. That percentage is much higher now than at the beginning. The numbers went up over time."

"It's done what it was supposed to do," Fox said of the program, "which is keep people off welfare."

But Baltimore's numbers do not reflect its poor population: home to the largest number of underprivileged people in the state, its seven grants rank last in the state.

Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Social Services, said many welfare recipients "could not come up with a business plan that would keep them off cash assistance."

But such was not the case with Baltimore resident Viola McCall.

Just over a year ago, McCall was living welfare check to welfare check, trying to support her four children on food stamps and cash assistance from the city's Department of Social Services.

Now, with the agency's help and a grant, she's running her own day care business and is off welfare.

"The money I got from the grant really let me rebuild my life and get my life back on track," said McCall, 42, a Louisiana native who lives in North Baltimore.

McCall had a workable plan, Fitzsimmons said. Her idea was to start a day care in her home. But she needed to pay bills, get a license for the day care work and supplies for the business -- child-sized tables and chairs, safe toys, a seesaw for the back yard. The agency awarded her $3,000, equal to about four months of cash assistance McCall would have received had she not gotten the grant.

McCall, who was on welfare less than a year, is now licensed to look after five children at a time. Her income is three times the amount she was getting from social services.

She hopes to open a larger day care center soon and get a license to take in more children.

"I'm so grateful that there was something like this out there for me," McCall said. "Before that, I'd been robbing from Peter to pay Paul, just trying to keep my head above water on the little money I got from welfare."

Had her day care business been unsuccessful, McCall would have had to wait three to six months to qualify for welfare. "It was sink or swim," she said.

The grants are most appealing to people eager to get back on their feet.

"A lot of our clients say that they really don't want welfare," said Rick Morton, family investment supervisor for Baltimore County's social services branch in Towson, which has issued grants to 19 families worth about $26,471.

"They see [grants] sort of as a loan that's not repayable," he said. "This way, they're able to retain their dignity and a little of their independence."

The grant program has been "extremely successful," he said. "If you believe in the program, it'll work."

Somerset County has reduced its welfare caseload by 78 percent since the end of 1996. Caseworkers have distributed 38 grants totaling $78,779 this year. So far, no recipient has returned for cash assistance.

The key to keeping people off welfare after they get a grant is to "really make the customer think about whether the [grant] is going to solve their problems," said Patti Mannion, Somerset County's social services director. "We've worked real hard to educate our customers. We ask them, 'Are you prepared for any other contingency that may arise?' "

"We've been very selective in who we've decided was a good candidate," said Terri Jackson, Somerset County's family investment agency director. "We stress personal responsibility. The economy's good now, but we let them know that they've got to work toward finding better jobs and a career."

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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