ANNAPOLIS — For nine years, Angela Thomas relied on welfare to care for her family. But when she heard about Maryland’s plan in 1996 to reform the system, “I was determined that I was going to get off.”
She went back to school to get her high school diploma and, with help from a job-training program called Maryland New Direction, she left the welfare rolls in September 1997 — a year after the state began its reform efforts.
The 26-year-old single mother of three now says she likes her new job as a clerk in Baltimore City Circuit Court and has no intentions of returning to welfare.
A long-term study of welfare reform in the state says Thomas’ case is not unique.
The state Department of Human Resources said that most of the 97,336 people who got off welfare in Maryland since 1995 got jobs, stayed off welfare and were able to preserve their families. Only one family in five returned to welfare within three months after leaving, officials said.
“We’ve reformed welfare lots of times, and many of those reforms have been short rides, but so far this one is working pretty good,” said Catherine Born, a research associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Despite the successes of the first two years, social workers say there is still much work that lies ahead.
They said many former welfare recipients are now among the working poor, who still need public assistance to get by. And many of those who have not left welfare yet are likely to be in the “hard-core group” who have been on welfare longer and have fewer job skills.
But Born said her study of the system shows that, “At least in the first year, it’s working the way we hoped, those who are more ready to work are getting jobs.”
The study, “Life After Welfare: Second Interim Report,” also found that many fears about welfare reform have not come to pass. Foster care has not been overrun with children whose parents left the welfare rolls, Born said, and recipients were not thrown out of programs, as many feared.
“The majority of those leaving cash assistance are doing so voluntarily,” Born said. “Only 7 percent of the case closings are due to imposition of the sanctions.”
But while temporary cash assistance caseloads are dropping, the need for other services has been rising, say social workers.
In Anne Arundel County, for instance, almost every case that drops off the rolls of the Temporary Cash Assistance for Needy Families program “remains open for food stamps and Medicaid,” said Vesta Kimble, deputy director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services.
She said the caseload in her county has “increased slightly, from 20,175 cases in 1995, to 20,467 in 1998,” despite a drop in the number of people getting direct cash benefits.
State welfare officials said they are not surprised by the continued dependence on other services.
“We never planned for people to leave in one step,” said Lynda Fox, deputy secretary of the Department of Human Resources.
An Urban Institute study showed that it takes single mothers about four years to get jobs where they make enough to totally leave welfare, Fox said. She said social service workers expected that people would have to rely on programs like Medicaid and food stamps in the interim.
“It’s all a part of the game plan,” she said. “The idea is to slowly move them to independence.”
Born said the public will have to decide whether it is “good news or bad news” that welfare reform has cut cash payments but increased the need for other types of government help.
“Often those who began working become the working poor. Personally, I don’t mind spending my tax dollars on that,” she said.
“Is it a good thing or bad thing that those children have health care?” through continuing Medicaid coverage and other programs, Born asked.
Born said the first step to reform is to get those who are most employable working. It sounds pretty easy, “but it’s hard work sometimes. Even the so-called easier cases or more job-ready folks have some problems.”
It is the “hard-core group,” those who have been on welfare longer and have fewer job skills, that will take longer and be more expensive to employ, said Born. The problem for reformers is what to do with that population, she said.
“It’s the same problem we had prior to reform,” Born said.
Born’s study, conducted by her Welfare and Child Support Training Group at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and by the Department of Human Services, focuses on 2,156 families whose cases were closed between October 1996 and September 1997.
Born said Maryland is the first state to methodically study and report what happens to families after they leave welfare. Other states are now interested in similar studies, she said.
“The state understands that you can make better policy when you have empirical research data, instead of (making policy) off the fly,” Born said. “We think the risks of not knowing how it’s working are far greater than knowing.”
The research project began with Maryland welfare reform, on Oct. 1, 1996, and the first report won national praise when it was issued in September. The White House said it was an early sign that the federally mandated welfare reform is working.
Born said the key to the making sure that reform works in the long run is focusing on job retention. “Getting them jobs may not be as difficult as helping people move forward,” she said.
Even for those who can get off welfare, staying off will be important. Under federal law, benefits are capped at five years in a lifetime.
“That’s not a lot of time, and people need to start now looking for work,” Thomas said.