CAMBRIDGE, Md. – Michelle Nichols takes welfare reform personally. The social worker knows most of the 230 people on Dorchester County’s cash assistance rolls. She should — she went shopping with more than half last month.
With a job fair for the county’s unemployed approaching, Nichols helped 130 women choose professional outfits for the event and any resulting job interviews.
“I think it would be very difficult for me to work in Baltimore City doing what I do,” Nichols said. “I couldn’t use the hands-on approach.”
Confronted with time limits imposed by the 1996 federal welfare reforms, rural counties have discovered their tight-knit communities are an advantage in moving aid recipients into jobs. Social service officials and businesses collaborate in helping their unemployed neighbors.
Darlene Taylor and Judy Lauck can attest to that. After losing their jobs, they joined Dorchester County’s Job Search program, which teaches resume writing, interviewing and networking with prospective employers.
Last November, they accepted unpaid positions in the county social services department. After five months, the director hired them as paid clerks.
Nichols follows their progress. Sitting in the women’s shared office on a recent morning, she brushed away tears and listened to them discuss their past difficulties and future plans.
“We’ve got gems there,” Nichols said, box of tissue in hand. “We know it.”
The department offers unpaid training at public schools, the Chamber of Commerce and the health department. And 102 people have left the rolls since the program began last October.
Isabelle Fisch, Dorchester County’s social services director, said participants draw experience and references from Job Search. Some land permanent positions.
But paid employment is elusive. “We are a county that doesn’t have too many jobs,” she said.
The lack of jobs experienced in Dorchester prevails across much of the Eastern Shore. And some counties have added complications.
Queen Anne’s County’s water industries create jobs that end with the season. According to department statistics, Queen Anne’s welfare rolls jumped from 100 in the summer of 1995 to 156 the next winter.
Harry Bosk, spokesman for Maryland’s Department of Human Resources, said all jurisdictions must create jobs to reduce welfare rolls, but rural counties have fewer options than cities.
“It’s going to be common sense that you’re not going to have the same wide base of industries,” Bosk said.
Even so, DHR statistics show that rural counties’ relative share of Maryland’s overall caseload has dropped from 18.9 percent, or 38,940 cases, in March 1996 to 15.3 percent, or 25,584, in February 1997.
While the state’s six more urban counties also lost cases — 25,383 over the last year — their share of the total caseload increased from 81 percent to 85 percent.
Meanwhile, rural caseworkers discovered that what works in cities often does not in the countryside.
Director Cynthia Jackson of Wicomico County’s Department of Social Services said tax credits for hiring welfare recipients are less effective in rural areas, because “a lot of folks don’t want what they perceive as the government looking down their throats.”
With public transit almost nonexistent, transportation to jobs has also proven an obstacle on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland.
The lack has ramifications not only in getting to work, but in getting children to day care. “You don’t have things as conveniently located as you do in the suburbs and in urban areas,” said Beatrice Embrey, Queen Anne’s County director of Social Services.
While many counties have had success with van pools or by expanding current public transportation routes, Frederick County plans to take cars repaired in the county schools have a dealer title, tag and inspect them. Marta Holden, assistant to the director of social services there, said welfare recipients could buy the cars for $800 to $1,500.
Counties undergoing a shift from rural to suburban have a combination of problems. They experience difficulties similar to the Eastern Shore’s or Western Maryland’s, but without the advantages of close communities.
Virginia Delozier, who lives in northern Baltimore County, provides a case study. The Parkton resident commended social service workers for Project Independence, which paired her husband with a State Highway Administration job.
But Delozier said the large caseload and complications of serving urban, suburban and rural populations caused caseworkers to burn out. “Anyone who stays in one position for more than a year is one tough cookie,” she said. “…It would help if they could stay in one place and get to know you.”
Back in Dorchester County, Michelle Nichols runs into her clients around Cambridge and watches their progress. She knows she is lucky.
As Nichols left her new clerks’ office, Darlene Taylor fired a parting shot. “Hey Michelle!” she called. “We’ve got a new nickname for you. Crybaby.” Turning, Nichols looked at the once-timid woman who now casually razzed her while standing in her office wearing professional attire. And she smiled. -30-