Md. welfare cases cut by 61 percent

Four-year figures show reform is working, says Glendening

Clients `making changes'

But experts point out that obstacles surface, like low-paying jobs

July 16, 1999|By Greg Garland and Kate Shatzkin | Greg Garland and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's aggressive welfare reform effort has slashed the state's caseload by nearly two-thirds since January 1995 as many former clients joined the work force, according to figures released yesterday.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening noted the latest report from the Maryland Department of Human Resources -- which says about 140,000 people have moved off welfare rolls since 1995 -- as evidence of the success of the state's welfare reform program.

"The whole state benefits when people move from getting a welfare check to earning a paycheck," Glendening said in a written statement. "Having a job and not having to rely on welfare to support your family greatly improves self-esteem. We are very pleased by these new numbers."

But some say welfare reform is far from an unqualified success story.

Karen Czapanskiy, a University of Maryland Law School professor who has represented many welfare clients, said reducing the caseload, which might look good on paper, is replacing some problems with others.

Many people who have left welfare are making $800 a month or less, she said -- creating a new class of poor workers who must compete for jobs requiring few skills. Others, unable to find or keep a job, have had to go back on welfare.

"My skepticism is fueled by having sat by the side of welfare clients being interviewed by caseworkers doing supposed assessment of their backgrounds and talents," Czapanskiy said. "I find those assessments to be exceptionally slim. It is my impression what is on the mind of Baltimore City Social Services is, get the numbers down, however [it] can."

The city agency's spokeswoman, Sue Fitzsimmons, said caseworkers try to find meaningful jobs for people -- but that some clients aren't ready to hold a job for long.

"We're not just closing cases," Fitzsimmons said. "We're closing cases because clients are making changes in their lives."

Czapanskiy said not enough is being done to help. Day care is sometimes not available for former clients who are working nighttime jobs, she said, and transportation vouchers aren't always handed out when people need them.

Catherine E. Born, a research professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore, said the sharp drop in the number of people receiving cash assistance is an indication that the state's welfare reform program is working.

`Radically reform welfare'

Born is leading a large-scale study of families who have left welfare since the reform program was launched.

"In Maryland, we have shown we were able to radically reform welfare," Born said. "We based our reform plan largely on empirical data, not on ideology. I think these numbers suggest that ours was the right approach."

But Born said the hardest part of welfare reform lies ahead, as the state tries to deal with cases of people who have been on welfare for long periods and with urban areas that have the greatest concentrations of poverty.

More also has to be done to support the working poor, she said.

"It seems to me now one of the big challenges we all face is to think about what we need to do as a state and as a community to support the working poor, which is who many of these former recipients are," Born said. "Reforming welfare is one thing. Reducing poverty is not synonymous with that. It's a bigger issue. That's kind of the next frontier for all of us."

`Moving in the right direction'

Born said the School of Social Work's research has shown that "the vast majority of families" are leaving welfare voluntarily, not because they have been sanctioned, and that most have been able to remain independent.

"We're finding that people are able to get jobs and to remain employed," she said. "Their wages, while not high, are moving in the right direction over time. And children are not coming into foster care, which was a great concern to everybody in 1995-96."

The Department of Human Resources report released yesterday said welfare rolls have been cut from 227,887 in January 1995 to 88,468 last month. DHR officials did not have figures available late yesterday on the amount being spent on welfare programs compared with the spending in 1995.

Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Glendening, said much of the savings from reducing the number of people receiving cash assistance is being spent on programs to help welfare recipients make the transition to the work force.

"Most of the money we've been saving from those coming off the welfare rolls we have been reinvesting in day care programs and job-training programs," Feldmann said. "Obviously, those are two huge needs for people coming off of welfare."

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