Shifting focus on poverty Welfare: Retiring agency director says changes in recent years haven't eased the suffering of Baltimore County's working poor.

December 01, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's welfare rolls are down 50 percent since 1995, and the local economy is humming -- but the retiring director of the county's anti-poverty program and his successor say the county's working poor are still suffering.

"We destroyed welfare as we knew it, but not poverty as we know it. What we've done is create a larger class within our society -- the working poor," said Robert Gajdys, director of the Community Assistance Network, once part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

Gajdys, 60, is retiring this month after eight years as head of the Dundalk-based nonprofit agency. His successor in the post, which pays between $60,000 and $65,000 a year, is Associate Director Richard Doran, 45.

The agency has evolved from a traditional, government-supported program to a more conservative model that favors private funding and self-sufficiency. But the idea that poverty has retreated because of welfare reform riles Gajdys, who calls that "a myth perpetrated by political leaders and the media."

While county welfare rolls have dipped from 18,880 to 9,342 people, Gajdys notes a 61 percent increase since 1993 in the number of households receiving assistance from the agency every year -- about 45,000 households in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Agency officials say they see increasing numbers of people living from one weekly paycheck to another and coming to one of the agency's six county centers when they face eviction, utility cutoffs and food shortages at the end of the month.

The number of homeless people seeking a night's sleep in the county's cold-weather shelters in Catonsville and Essex doubled to 120 per night before they closed for the season in April. "More people learned about it. More people needed it," Doran said.

Officials suspect that many people leave welfare for low-paying jobs that have few benefits and then need emergency help for health care, child care and food.

"What they're doing is trading off. 'Do I feed my kids today? Pay my rent today? Do I pay my utility bill? Do I buy medicine?' " said Gajdys.

His view isn't shared by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who campaigned for re-election on a platform of a revived economy and the creation of thousands of jobs in the county.

"In the last three years, we've put over 2,500 people back to work, and at $7-an-hour jobs. We're doing better," he said.

Government support for the poverty program is shrinking, say Gajdys and Doran, who are seeking more private funding. The agency once was entirely government-funded, but its $3 million annual budget is 60 percent privately funded. Programs include weatherization for older homes, job training, emergency shelter, day care, counseling and training, housing, and fuel assistance, as well as providing cash and food for people in dire need.

In an age of business cutbacks, the two men sound as much like tight-fisted administrators as passionate advocates for the underclass.

"I run this like a business," Gajdys said of his 36 full-time staffers.

Gajdys, a Native American, grew up a poor orphan in upstate New York, where he picked apples during the summers. As director of the agency since 1990, he is credited with being a strong administrator and a fiscal conservative, in addition to being a strong advocate for the poor.

Doran, a candidate for a master's degree in business administration, isn't as blunt as Gajdys. A Detroit native and father of two young daughters, Doran came to Baltimore 22 years ago and worked for nonprofit agencies and Baltimore County's former community development department before joining the poverty office in 1991.

The agency received widespread publicity in 1994 as a central player in the Moving to Opportunity program, which used federal funds to relocate poor people from the city to the suburbs.

That raised the agency's profile, Doran said -- but perhaps not in the best way.

Doran wants the agency to take a more regional approach, linking with similar organizations in Maryland and building a strong network that can attack poverty's roots on a broader scale.

He also wants closer contact with government to solve chronic problems such as suburb-to-suburb transportation and the lack of child care for the poor and to expand services to fight substance abuse.

Board members say more must be done to help people develop the skills and education to escape a hand-to-mouth existence.

"We see that the long-term solution to poverty is developing self-sufficiency," said the Rev. Richard H. Peoples of First Baptist Church of Dundalk, the agency board president.

The agency continues to help people such as Kristen Wozniak, 24, who lives in Dundalk with her fiance and their 2-year-old son.

Wozniak went to the former Merritt Point Elementary School recently, seeking help with her utility bill.

"It's kind of scary," she said. She owes more than $200 for utility bills, and her fiance is out of work.

Without the agency, she said, she'd be out of options. "They're wonderful. They help out the best they possibly can," she said.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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