Plan to help move poor is scrapped

Aim to get job-seekers near suburban work called `too ambitious'

February 02, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

A proposal to help some of Baltimore's poor move near jobs in the suburbs has died in Annapolis after a powerful Baltimore County lawmaker declared it too ambitious for the General Assembly.

Senate Republican leader Martin G. Madden has dropped his proposal to launch a three-year, $3.75 million pilot program to help pay moving expenses for 1,500 families who have been on welfare and want to live closer to jobs. Up to 700 of those families could have come from Baltimore.

But in a stark demonstration of just how sensitive the issue is, Madden found out quickly that the idea of helping poor people move to the suburbs, even for work, would go nowhere in the legislature.

"The reaction has not been what I expected," said Madden, who began hearing criticism as soon as his proposal was detailed Friday in The Sun. "I learned something from this."

Madden said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a committee chairman whose support would have been critical, persuaded him to drop the idea Monday night.

"He said the plan is too ambitious and it's going to be impossible to get consensus on this," Madden said.

For Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, the proposal drew immediate comparisons to a firestorm in his county over Moving to Opportunity, a short-lived federal program to relocate public housing residents to the suburbs.

"I went through the MTO issue a couple years ago, and there were some folks who felt this was a similar program, although it's not," Bromwell said.

"There are things that you can explain on the floor of the Senate and in a committee that are sometimes unexplainable back home," he said.

Bromwell added he had concerns about the proposal.

"I think the last thing we should be doing is advocating people moving out of the city," he said. "You can't support a city without people from all walks of life."

Madden, widely regarded in the General Assembly as a leader on welfare reform issues, said he will continue offering legislation aimed at helping people get off public assistance. But public perception and political reality quashed the Howard Republican's proposal.

Offering extra aid

His pilot program would have taken advantage of 2,319 federal welfare-to-work rent subsidy vouchers available in Maryland. Madden's program would have provided extra help by covering such costs as moving, security and utility deposits for 500 families a year, up to a limit of $2,500 per family.

The plan addressed what experts consider one of welfare reform's most difficult challenges: Recipients are concentrated in urban areas with high unemployment and scarce job opportunities.

Baltimore is home to 61 percent of the state's 79,000 welfare recipients, and welfare rolls are dropping there more slowly than statewide.

Madden's plan centered on the belief that to move more people off welfare, the city needs help from the suburbs, where unemployment is at or near all-time lows. He also hoped that families moving to the suburbs would benefit from the change in neighborhoods.

Cold reception in suburbia

The idea played well with advocates for the poor, but it didn't please some of Madden's suburban colleagues.

He and a few other senators received angry calls and e-mails after the proposal was publicized. Madden said some people didn't understand that the rent vouchers are already available, and that he was merely proposing additional aid for people using them.

"The biggest misconception is that they think I've created these vouchers," Madden said.

Long memories

Bromwell said such perceptions can kill legislation, particularly when they invite comparisons to the Moving to Opportunity program.

When the program was introduced in 1994, Baltimore County opponents argued the city's poor would destabilize their neighborhoods. The debate took on racial overtones, pitting middle-class whites against poor blacks.

By the time the program died in 1998, the actual migration of the poor to the suburbs was small, but as legislators found, the political damage lasts to this day.

"MTO, it's the same argument. There's tremendous resistance to that," said a disappointed Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore. "People either don't like change, or some people have moved out of urban areas and don't want any part of that coming to them."

Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

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