Welfare cutoff scare averted

Most state recipients met requirements by deadline, officials say

January 11, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The long-dreaded federal welfare reform deadline forcing recipients to work or lose benefits came and went in Maryland without the hue and cry some advocates for the poor predicted.

In August, Maryland Department of Social Services administrators in Baltimore estimated that 9,000 city families faced losing cash assistance because of the federal two-year work deadline.

The state estimates that it has placed 5,030 city welfare recipients in jobs over the last two years. Of the 9,000 recipients in August who faced benefit cutoffs, 7,500 were linked to services that will keep them eligible. The remaining 1,500 have left the welfare rolls on their own, according to the state.

The state estimated that its welfare rolls have dropped by 40 percent since the clock began ticking Jan. 1, 1997, with at least half of those getting jobs. By working to ensure that recipients got jobs or joined job training, education or volunteer programs, state and city social service leaders said, Maryland avoided having to cut off many families' benefits.

"One of the reasons this isn't a crisis is because Maryland never said, `We're going to wait until the 23rd month,' " said Catherine Born, associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work. "The vast majority of families are leaving voluntarily, they're finding jobs and they're keeping jobs."

Maryland has 102,960 welfare recipients, down about 67,000 from two years ago. In Baltimore, the caseload dropped 29 percent, from 84,629 to 60,115. State officials esti- mate that two-thirds of the recipients are children.

A 30-year low in unemployment nationwide has helped reduce the number of recipients nationwide from 14.4 million to 9 million, system analysts noted.

"The focus now is on working," said Mark Millspaugh, an information analyst for state social services. "It's a lot more of a case management issue now rather than an eligibility issue and determining how much the check is going to be."

Local advocates for the poor are cautious. In Maryland, families who exceed the two-year deadline have a 30-day grace period to meet the requirements. Some fear ensuing deadlines eventually will result in hundreds of women and children being forced onto city streets.

With the first deadline arriving on Jan. 1, hundreds of Maryland families will begin facing a deadline each month. Next month, 1,000 recipients will face the test, as will 400 more in March.

"There is usually a lag time," said Robert Hess, president of the Center for Poverty Solutions in Baltimore.

The welfare reform law does allow families exemptions from the deadline if parents or children suffer from a serious illness. Others could be exempted if they are participating in a drug rehabilitation program that extends beyond the deadline.

Jonathan Thompson, program administrator for job and support services, said Maryland families who do end up being forced off the welfare rolls need only blame themselves.

"The only time a person will be cut off of cash assistance will be because they are not participating," he said.

Welfare Rolls Drop

The federal government's first deadline for welfare recipients to have jobs arrived Jan. 1. Here are the caseloads of welfare recipients today and two years ago when the two-year deadline began:

1997 1999 Difference %

Baltimore 84,629 60,115 -24,514 -29%

Maryland 169,721 102,960 -66,761 -39%

Nation 14.4 million 9 million -5.4 million -37%

Source: Maryland Department of Human Resources

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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