Allegany Co. confronts work, welfare dilemmas

Success in cutting rolls brings new hardships

August 15, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- From her small red-brick house hard by the highway, Virginia Curry called her pastor. As they sat at the dining table covered in flowered cloth, she told him she wanted to commit suicide -- that leaving welfare for work was ending up to be no kind of life.

Across Allegany County in rural Oldtown, Veronica Crites creeps in worn tennis shoes to her midnight shift at the nearby Superfos plant, trying not to wake her sleeping children.

The former welfare recipient couldn't be happier with her $6.75-an-hour job making buckets; she has left behind the dilapidated trailer, where she and six children squeezed into three bedrooms, for a better home.

Curry and Crites are the very different faces of a quiet revolution in rural, conservative Allegany County -- a leader in the state's welfare reform effort and an unlikely seat of social change.

Since January 1995, the small county's welfare rolls have dropped by 91 percent -- the largest percentage reduction in Maryland during that period -- from 4,829 recipients four years ago to 417 at the end of June. In a community of 77,000 people with the state's lowest median income and fourth-highest unemployment rate, where a good job is hard to find even for an experienced worker, welfare reform has come surprisingly quickly -- bringing with it a complex mixture of pride and misery.

Other problems increase

As dependence on welfare has fallen, other ills have continued to rise. Complaints to the Department of Juvenile Justice have skyrocketed, from 400 in 1993 to an expected 1,700 by the end of this year. While the reports are most often of nonviolent crime that would not even register in more urban areas -- teen smoking, broken windows and the like -- they have kept police increasingly busy, a sign of more youths bored and unsupervised while parents work.

Of the 675 people whose cases have been closed by the Allegany County Department of Social Services since June 1997, 217 left for jobs, and 108 were forced off the rolls or quit because they weren't participating in job-training programs, said Patricia Winebrenner, the agency's data manager. The rest of the cases were closed for miscellaneous reasons -- clients began receiving child support, they began receiving other benefits from Social Security or they moved.

The department has not been tracking how many people forced off welfare subsequently got jobs, or how many people who got them in the beginning have lost them.

Some former welfare clients find themselves in jobs that still do not pay their bills.

Curry, for example, should be a success story. She left the welfare rolls on her own initiative, finding a housekeeping job at a nursing home. But every time she gets an extra shift, her food stamps are cut. Her eligibility for medical benefits ran out, and she can't afford the $40 per paycheck she would have to pay for insurance. Her youngest two children mostly stay inside -- in Cumberland, there's little for a kid to do that's both legal and free.

For Curry, 38, independence has brought mind-numbing depression. Her pastor talked her out of suicide -- reminding her she was the only person who could provide for 10-year-old Kevin and 13-year-old Jack -- but her problems remain.

"It's really sad because you can never get ahead in life," she said. "I'm stuck. They will not be there to help you."

Domestic violence reports are on the rise in Allegany County, from one or two calls a week to the sheriff's office two years ago to one or two per day now. So are reports of child abuse, in a place that already has the second-highest rate in the state. Food pantry patronage has gone up 25 percent.

"Huffing," the practice of inhaling paint and gas fumes that has become popular around the nation, has gotten so bad that local stores have taken to limiting the number of spray cans that can be purchased by patrons younger than 18. Fledgling gangs, so far relatively harmless, have sprouted on the north and south sides of Cumberland.

`Quit the denial'

"We can't get better until we first admit to ourselves that we're this bad," said Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany Democrat working on an initiative to improve conditions in seven distressed Maryland counties, including his own.

"In some ways, we're like the person who is an alcoholic. The first thing you have got to do is quit the denial."

With a rush of new programs, Allegany officials are trying to do just that. Next month, the county school system will expand an already booming after-school program into a "K to Gray" menu of offerings that will keep some schools open as late as 9: 30 p.m. weeknights, with opportunities for parents to learn technological skills side by side with their children.

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