WASHINGTON – While Maryland’s overall welfare caseload has dropped sharply, a state official told Congress that many of those leaving the system still depend on government programs like food stamps and Medicaid.
“Our goal, you see, is to reduce poverty, not merely reduce welfare dependency,” said Vesta Kimble, deputy director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services.
Kimble testified Thursday at a Ways and Means subcommittee hearing, the first in a series of hearings on the impact of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law at the state and local level.
Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Florida and chairman of the subcommittee, said Maryland should be an example for all the states to follow.
A recent University of Maryland study shows that families leaving welfare for work in the state do not return to the welfare rolls in large numbers and are generally able to preserve their families.
Since January 1995, more than 97,000 people have left Maryland’s welfare rolls, leaving 131,000 recipients as of last month. But Kimble said that while the Maryland numbers look good, they can be deceptive. That is especially true in Anne Arundel County, she said.
Almost every closed case has resurfaced in other areas. Clients needed food stamps and Medicaid, if just for their children, she said.
“Although our Temporary Cash Assistance for Needy Families caseload has decreased markedly, our caseloads overall have not decreased,” Kimble said. “In fact, they have increased slightly, from 20,175 cases in 1995, to 20,467 in 1998.”
Kimble said she generally supports reform, even though there are problems.
She noted that her office began changing the culture of welfare three years ago, while it was still under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program. The switch came before changes in state laws, without any federal waivers, without additional staff and without any additional money, Kimble said.
“We simply began doing business in a different way, transforming ourselves from an impersonal, forms-laden bureaucracy into a professional job center that offers customized employment services for any county resident,” she said.
Officials from other states agreed with Kimble that changing the culture of welfare offices made a difference in welfare reform.
But some committee members wondered whether welfare reform successes could be attributed to the booming economy and asked if the reforms would succeed during a recession.
“I think the program is seriously flawed,” said Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark, D-California. “Even if 50 percent of the people are working, what are the others doing to make ends meet?
He asked if reform has “done anything other than kick people off welfare?”
Kimble said reform is working in many areas, but there are still a few kinks. She said “categorical chains” need to be removed by the federal government, allowing states to spend federal dollars where they are needed most.
Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Michigan, said the committee was not trying to tie states’ hands, but that rules need to be in place so state-operated programs are ran efficiently.
But remember “those who today are living on the edge of poverty will tomorrow most likely spiral down to a level that will qualify them for services,” Kimble said. “Now is the time to address the needs of all low-income families.”