WASHINGTON – Time ran out on Jan. 1 for 384 Maryland families who have been on public assistance continuously since 1997 — but benefits didn’t.
Under the welfare reform act of that year, recipients had five years to get off public assistance or they would be kicked off.
But the 384 families will continue collecting federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families grants because of an exemption that lets states extend aid if recipients can show they are working to get off welfare.
“The fact is that some people, despite their best efforts, needed to stay on past the 60 months,” said Richard Larson, policy and research director at the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
“And the state of Maryland has decided that those people, as long as they’re following their plan . . . need the forbearance that’s allowed in the federal law,” he said.
The exemption allows states to continue benefits to people for more than five years, as long as the number of long-timers stays under a certain level. If that group grows larger than 20 percent of the state’s total welfare caseload – which officials here say will not happen before October 2004 – the state could be docked 5 percent of its annual federal TANF block grant.
Maryland gets about $230 million in TANF funds from the federal government each year.
Maryland’s exempt recipients, three-quarters of whom live in Baltimore City, are just a fraction of the roughly 62,000 families who signed up for assistance when the state started doling out TANF funds in 1997. They make up less than 2 percent of the total caseload, officials said.
Many of the 384 families qualified for continued benefits because limited education, health problems or lack of child care prohibited them from earning enough to support their families, Larson said. Substance abuse, lack of transportation and mental health problems were also among reasons for an exemption.
While the number of exempt recipients is small, figures are certain to rise as more people hit the five-year wall each month. The rules limit TANF benefits to 60 months, whether or not they are consecutive.
In addition, some people who left the rolls during the economic boom will likely return because of layoffs, pushing their totals toward 60 months, said Catherine Born, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work.
“If the economy kind of stays in the toilet and welfare caseloads start to go up, states are going to start feeling a pinch,” Born said.
“That’s where the rubber’s going to hit the road,” she said. “It will be harder to make affirmative kinds of decisions about keeping people on past 60 months when you need that money for people who haven’t been on for 60 months.”
State officials say that as more recipients push the five-year mark, caseworkers will watch closely to ensure that only those who face legitimate hardship and who are making an effort to climb out of extreme poverty win an extension of benefits.
Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, said restrictions should remain strict so that an exemption does not become a presumed extension of the limited program.
“Obviously in the current economy there are hardships and there may be legitimate reasons to except people,” Sepp said. “But will this definition broaden when the economy starts to get back on its feet again?
“The key here is ensuring that the hardship exemption is applied properly and supervised very heavily,” he said.