ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s welfare caseload has declined 12.2 percent so far in 1997, to 149,028 cases statewide at the end of August, new Department of Human Resources statistics show.
That means a decrease of 78,859, or a cumulative 34.6 percent, since January 1995, when the department began the current reporting system, officials say.
Maryland’s success has been so steady that it beat by eight months the Oct. 1 federal deadline of moving 25 percent of its entire welfare population to work activities.
Most county social services officials attribute the outcome either to the economy or to state and federal welfare reforms.
But change is evident in the very language social services experts use to describe those who come to them. Potential welfare cases are now “customers,” not “clients.”
“We now have the staff look at potential customers coming through the door differently than they used to,” said Patti Mannion, director of the Somerset County Department of Social Services. “Instead of throwing benefits at them, we try to teach them about personal responsibility.”
Lynda Fox, deputy secretary of the Department of Human Resources, said there is now a definite orientation toward work when someone walks through the door.
“Our first effort is to avoid cash assistance,” Fox said. “We ask them what brought them to our offices and have them define their problem.”
Fox said many cases can be resolved quickly by providing a welfare avoidance grant — a one-time lump sum of money. Other applicants have a job and just need child care or Medicaid, health insurance for the poor, Fox said.
But for those whose needs cannot be solved right away, counties have implemented a program called “Up Front Jobs Search.” Piloted in Anne Arundel County in 1995, the program was started statewide last October, though many counties were already using the procedures.
The program requires social workers to tell customers that cash benefits will be delayed for 14 days while their paperwork is being processed. In those two weeks, the customer must visit a designated number of job sites to fill out applications.
“The key is local flexibility,” Fox said. “They set rules that are appropriate to a certain jurisdiction.”
If the customer does not find a job, the department will then give them temporary cash assistance and have them enter into a Family Agreement, spelling out what they will do to find a job.
Somerset’s Mannion contends that right now everybody has a fair chance of getting a job.
“I think the mood of the country is different,” Mannion said. “People are getting behind the idea of welfare reform and are much more willing to give them a hand.”
But Vesta Kimble, deputy director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services, said Maryland’s success is unrelated to reform.
“Long before welfare reform, the caseload was dropping,” Kimble said. “It has nothing to do with us and everything to do with the economy.”
However, Steve Thompson, assistant director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University, said anyone who links the welfare system’s success to the economy is misinformed.
“The economy has affected some of the declines in welfare caseload,” Thompson said. “But, if it were the economy, we would see a decline more on the order of two to three percent in the caseload instead of 24 percent in the past 12 months.”
Thompson attributes the success to the departments’ proactive measures to get people into jobs and to the new structure of the welfare system.
Sue Fitzsimmons, public information officer of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, said the new structure has indeed forced them to be creative and innovative when finding new jobs for customers.
“It is extremely exciting for us,” Fitzsimmons said. “There has definitely been a cultural change in our staff.
“Before, a good worker was determined by if they saw a certain number of cases and gave them correct benefits in a timely manner. Now, they focus on helping [applicants] get a job.”
The federal law states that welfare recipients must find some sort of work within two years and be completely off public assistance within five years.
The Garrett County Department of Social Services realizes the importance of the federal time limits.
“We talk to the customers and really lay it on the line, which is quite a different tactic than we used to take,” said Tom Rosser, assistant director for the county’s Family Investment Program.
Maryland is expected to have moved half its January 1995 caseload into some kind of job activity by 2002. If it does not, it faces losing up to 21 percent of its federal welfare funds. “We don’t think we will have a problem meeting this requirement,” Fox said. “I will not say it will be easy, but we have met with incredible success to date and I do not see any problems in the future.” -30-