Moving city poor close to suburban jobs

Howard state senator seeks $3.75 million to relocate 1,500 families

January 28, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

An influential state senator plans to introduce legislation aimed at helping poor Baltimore residents move to the suburbs to be closer to jobs.

Senate Republican leader Martin G. Madden's bill would launch a three-year, $3.75 million pilot program to give 1,500 families up to $2,500 each for moving bills, security deposits and other expenses.

Anyone in the state who has been on welfare and has a special rent subsidy voucher could qualify for the new program. But Madden's sights are set on Baltimore, home to 61 percent of Maryland's 79,000 welfare recipients.

"It's become apparent to me that Baltimore City does not have the jobs within its boundaries to give the opportunities to people there to find self-supporting jobs, that the jobs are in outlying areas," Madden said.

"Baltimore City is going to need some type of regional help from surrounding jurisdictions."

Madden is widely respected in the General Assembly as a leader on welfare reform issues, but some of the Howard County senator's suburban colleagues might be wary of this proposal.

Baltimore County legislators remember local howls of protest in the mid-1990s over Moving to Opportunity, a short-lived federal program to relocate public housing residents to the suburbs.

`It's not gong to happen'

"If it turns into an MTO issue, it's not going to happen," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat. Bromwell chairs the Finance Committee, which would likely hear Madden's legislation.

"You've got to talk about how many people. You've got to talk about where they are, and it's not just going to be a Baltimore City issue," Bromwell said. "It should benefit everybody."

The program would take advantage of 2,319 federal welfare-to-work rent subsidy vouchers already available in Maryland: 700 for Baltimore residents, 700 for Baltimore County, 469 for Prince George's, 250 for Montgomery and 200 for St. Mary's.

The welfare-to-work voucher is essentially the same as Section 8 rental assistance. Anyone who has one can use it to help pay the rent anywhere. Madden's program would cover such costs as moving, security and utility deposits for 500 families a year, up to $2,500 per family.

Job or offer required

The money would be available to former and current welfare recipients. They would have to be working or have a firm job offer.

Legislative leaders hadn't seen the proposal and were noncommittal, though Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he had "great confidence" in Madden's suggestions on welfare reform.

City legislators are also expected to be supportive.

"This is just a great move," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the Democrat who heads the city's Senate delegation.

"This is the next step, the next stage [of moving people off welfare] because we want to make this permanent."

The proposal strikes at the heart of what experts consider one of welfare reform's most difficult challenges: Welfare recipients are concentrated in urban areas with high unemployment and scarce job opportunities.

Across the nation, welfare rolls have dropped more slowly in cities than in the suburbs, where unemployment is generally lower.

In Maryland, while the rest of the state has seen a 75 percent drop in welfare caseloads in the past five years, Baltimore has seen a 54 percent drop, to 48,000 recipients.

That's a significant decline, but advocates argue that with just two years left in the federal five-year lifetime limit on cash assistance, there's an urgent need to help those on the dole get to work.

Stubborn shortage of work

A 1999 study by the Urban Institute found Baltimore was one of four major cities expected to have the most persistent shortages of entry-level jobs for welfare recipients.

At the same time, the demand for such workers is high in the suburbs, where unemployment rates are at or near all-time lows.

The sensible solution for many on welfare, some argue, is to get out of the city to suburban businesses desperate for workers.

In Howard County, for example, a pilot program recently started bringing five workers by taxicab from Southwest Baltimore to $6.50-an-hour jobs at an Ellicott City bagel shop.

Another project, Bridges to Work, provides van service from Baltimore to the suburbs and has helped more than 400 people find work.

For the most part, the Baltimore region's anemic public transportation system makes commuting a hardship for poor people.

"It wears you down having to commute," Madden said. "It's tough enough to be a single parent raising a family, rise up early in the morning, get your children to school or day care and then get to your job."

Madden and others also argue there's an important secondary benefit to moving welfare parents near suburban jobs: the schools.

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