Funds cut as number of needy Marylanders hits new high

State is budgeting less for assistance in the coming fiscal year

May 27, 2012|By Caitlin Johnston, Carl Straumsheim and Kate McGonigle, Special to The Sun

The number of Maryland families that need government help to make ends meet has reached record levels, but funds for the state's safety net are being cut.

More than 700,000 Marylanders receive food assistance, the most in state history. A record 70,000 people depend on emergency cash assistance. And demand for the state's child-care subsidy program is such that officials imposed an indefinite freeze on new applicants.

Yet state and federal officials are budgeting less money for the safety net in the coming fiscal year. The move reflects the government's confidence in the economic recovery, based in part on the fact that demand appears to have leveled off for most state-administered assistance programs.

Others question whether it is overly optimistic to cut back at a time when the state's assistance programs still are swollen with unprecedented numbers.

"It took from January 2008 to February 2012 to double the number of people enrolled in the Food Supplement Program," said Neil Bergsman, director of the Maryland Budget & Tax Policy Institute, a nonpartisan budget analysis organization. "It's not going to go down all that way in one year."

Bergsman questioned whether the Maryland Department of Human Resources is projecting positive estimates to help balance the state budget — a constitutional requirement in Maryland. The state faces a $1.1 billion deficit that legislators hope to eliminate over the next two years.

Pat Hines, the department's director of communication, said the budget was "our best projection of what the citizens of Maryland need in the next fiscal year."

"We think that our budget is accurate," Hines said. "And we're optimistic about the direction of the economy and of our numbers."

However, a report by the Department of Legislative Services' Office of Policy Analysis suggested that services to needy families could be affected since funding meant for struggling families is being diverted to pay off shortfalls from prior years.

Demand has been so high that the Department of Human Resources, which helps Maryland families with child care, cash and food assistance, and medical services, was forced to request an additional $30 million in state funding in fiscal 2012. The shortfall occurred even though federal funding for the department has doubled from about $1 billion to nearly $2 billion each year since before the recession began. An emergency fund created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to help states with rising demand also ran out by December 2010.

Should need rise again and exceed the budget, Hines said, the department would again seek supplemental funds from the legislature.

While the numbers of needy families are higher than at any other point in Maryland history, the figures do not include the thousands of households that depend on food banks and charities because their income is too high for public assistance. To qualify, a family usually has to make no more than twice the federal poverty level, or $40,000 for a family of three.

Food banks and other charities report serving up to twice as many people — many of them middle class-families that have never before needed help.

"A lot of our agencies are telling us that people who a couple of years ago were writing checks and supported the local food pantry are now coming to get food," said Deborah Flateman, CEO of the Maryland Food Bank.

Nor do the figures include the families that simply aren't aware that they qualify for assistance. Cathy Demeroto, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, said her organization was working to educate these families on the programs available to them.

Demeroto estimates that about 90,000 people in Montgomery County alone are eligible for food assistance but do not claim benefits — suggesting that the already bloated official figures may not reflect the true need in Maryland, and that thousands of families could be struggling needlessly.

"I certainly think the need still exists," she said, "and it's too early to predict what's going to happen with the economy."

The federal food assistance system is an entitlement program, which means the Maryland Department of Human Resources accepts any qualifying applicant and bills the federal government. Programs funded by state funds or block grants, however, have seen their surpluses evaporate as enrollment has skyrocketed.

Maryland's surge in demand for food assistance between January 2007 and 2012 is the fifth-highest increase in the country — although the number of new applications has stalled in recent months, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group.

The state's assistance programs have seen an influx of applicants like Ryan and Amanda Velivlis of Parkville, who have an 18-month-old daughter and a son due in July.

The Velivlises thought they had planned wisely by paying off debts and cutting up credit cards before starting a family.

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