ANNAPOLIS – Despite a rapid decline in Maryland’s welfare rolls since the reforms of 1995, advocates said that is only a small step in reducing poverty levels and more needs to be done as lawmakers convene in the General Assembly next month.
With the first five-year period of the federal and state welfare assistance programs ending in January, some key legislators are vowing to support federal reauthorization of welfare. They say they will work with Gov. Parris N. Glendening to preserve funding for welfare programs, despite a statewide budget crunch that has forced a 1.5 percent cutback in all state agencies to support anti-terrorism measures.
“The big thrust is the national reauthorization by Congress,” said Sen. Jean Roesser, D-Montgomery, a member of the Joint Committee on Welfare Reform. “The state is anxious to have the same level of funding, even with the cost-of- living increase that we have now.”
Advocates hope the funding will support fledgling self-sufficiency programs that help former welfare recipients above the poverty level, by eliminating expensive child care and transportation costs.
Since January 1995, welfare caseloads have decreased 68 percent to less than 80,000. Established last year, the Skills-Based Training for Employment Promotion funded training for low-income individuals to ensure they learn skills that will keep them out of minimum-wage jobs and in positions with health care benefits.
“Moving from welfare to work is made more difficult for many families because they not only have to meet new expenses, but the help they can get only covers part of the cost that they are expected to pay, (which is) a considerable amount,” said Diana Pearce, a University of Washington researcher who conducted a study on self-sufficiency in Maryland. “We are very cognizant of the ancillary services and that is exactly why we need continued funding at its present level or even more.”
Early projections indicate a sharp increase in welfare caseloads since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but long-term forecasts point to an economic rebound in 2002, which would help offset the sudden bulge, said analysts from RESI, a Towson University research institute.
“Congress has to put in a lot of money for bioterrorism and defense,” said Delegate Joan Pitkin, D-Prince George’s. “We simply have to be on our guard and not do this at the expense of human services, of which welfare reform is at the top of the list.”
The struggling economy is more reason to assist welfare recipients, advocates said.
“When the budget is tight, it’s important for a family to get the job training they need, (so) when the economy is in a downturn, they’re not depending on the state,” said Jan Schmidt, director of government relations for Advocates of Children and Youth.
Legislators plan to dig into an $80 million dedicated purpose account in the interim to assist welfare recipients and citizens below the poverty level.
“We have benefited from the successful economy that has helped to reduce our rolls,” said Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, the welfare reform committee’s House chairman. “(Now) we have to prepare ourselves when the economy returns to prosperity, and help in the next stage of welfare reforms.”