ANNAPOLIS – There was a time when Grace Mitchell lived in a shelter and collected welfare each month. But now she lives in a small Baltimore apartment with her two children, and works 40 hours a week at a decent-paying job.
Still, the 20-year-old struggles to pay all her bills and provide for her family.
“Right now, I’m just living day-by-day,” she said. “I’m struggling, but it’s not welfare.”
The Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute said Tuesday that there are more than 41,000 families in the state like Mitchell’s, where at least one parent works but does not earn enough to rise above the federal poverty line.
“It’s a problem when there are large numbers of families where parents are working and yet their incomes are not enough,” said Nick Johnson, the author of the institute’s report. The study was based on Census Bureau figures and state and federal tax data.
“An even larger number of parents are working and their income is just above the poverty line, which in Maryland is just not enough,” Johnson said. The federal poverty level is an income of $13,700 for a family of three or $17,500 for a family of four.
Advocates who released the report said the government should provide health insurance to working parents who cannot afford it and should increase the refundable earned income credit.
But Maryland Human Resources Secretary Lynda G. Fox said many working-poor families who qualify for public assistance like food stamps and child-care vouchers, are not taking advantage of programs that can help them rise above the poverty level.
“We want to encourage them to use the programs because they are there to help,” she said. “It’s not easy to live on $20,000 or $25,000 a year, but it does keep a family above the federal poverty level.”
Fox said the department has started training programs for working parents to help them get the skills they need to compete for higher-paying positions where they work.
Experts say the working poor are often stuck with low-paying jobs that offer little or no benefits, while those who earn higher wages do not work enough hours to bring in stable income.
The director of the Family Investment Program Legal Clinic, a non-profit legal service organization that represents former welfare recipients, said the working poor are “frustrated because they have a hard time making ends meet.”
“People who leave the welfare rolls feel very good about themselves and they want to work,” said Peter Sabonis, the clinic director.
Sen. Martin G. Madden, R-Howard, said the Finance subcommittee on welfare reform that he chairs will introduce legislation next week to help families get the benefits they deserve. The Welfare Renovation Act would require that drug counselors become involved with families leaving welfare and it would also help families receive benefits quicker.
Currently, families have to wait nearly a month after being approved for food stamps or child care vouchers before they can begin using these services.
“Are we satisfied? No. But we are making progress,” Madden said. “Every family that leaves welfare is better off as far as their income is concerned. We are trying to identify barriers that people face toward getting self- sufficient.”
Self-sufficiency is still a battle that Grace Mitchell fights every month when the bills arrive.
She went on welfare in 1998, after a domestic dispute left her homeless. She has since landed a job and moved out of the shelter and into an apartment, but she is still financially strained.
“By the time I get what I need for the week, buy Pampers and things for the house, buy my weekly bus pass, that’s it,” she said. “I just do what I gotta do when it comes to my bills: pay half on this and half on that.”