WASHINGTON – More than 700 Maryland families who passed the five-year federal limit for cash assistance this year have continued collecting checks because they face substantial “hardships” in moving from welfare to work.
The families, most of whom live in Baltimore, have exceeded the time limits set in federal welfare reform laws, but they will stay on the rolls because of an exemption that lets states continue benefits for those who cannot hold steady jobs for reasons of limited education, health problems, lack of child care and other barriers.
The number of hardship families has grown to 708 since Jan. 1, when the first 346 Maryland households that had been receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families hit the 60-month deadline set in the federal welfare reform of 1997, according to the state Department of Human Resources.
But since January, the number of hardship families added each month has dropped steadily. The numbers jumped 65 percent between January and February, but just 5 percent from March to April.
The dwindling growth can be attributed, in part, to Baltimore City’s aggressive campaign to target longtime welfare recipients for job training and other programs aimed at getting them settled in the workforce, said Mark Millspaugh, a policy analyst in the Department of Human Resources.
“The idea is, `Look, you’ve been on welfare this long, we’ve referred you to various service providers, now what else is it that you need to move off of welfare?'” Millspaugh said. “They sort of ratchet up the services to get people working.”
Welfare caseworkers in Baltimore concentrate on recipients when they hit the 42- and 55-month marks, trying to identify hidden problems like mental illness, drug addiction or domestic violence that could hinder their search for employment, spokeswoman Sue Fitzsimmons said.
“Most people really do want a job, and the problem that’s keeping them from working is an ancillary thing: Do they have transportation? Do they have child care?” said Fitzsimmons of the Baltimore Department of Social Services. “We’re really making a concerted effort to make sure that we don’t overlook the problems that are keeping them on welfare.”
Her department is trying to be more “user-friendly,” hooking up clients with the services they need to secure full-time jobs, Fitzsimmons said. The system seems to be working, with more recipients leaving the rolls after spending three or more years on welfare.
More funding would allow caseworkers to devote that sort of attention to every case, moving people to the workforce long before they spent 42 months on welfare, Fitzsimmons said.
While the number of longtime welfare families is expected to grow monthly, Maryland is far from reaching its threshold for households that continue to receive benefits after the five-year limit, Millspaugh said. If the number reaches 20 percent of the state’s total welfare caseload, the federal government can withhold 5 percent of the $230 million it gives Maryland every year to run TANF.
Officials do not expect that to happen until at least October 2004, a date they offer as an unlikely worst-case scenario, assuming that every family receiving cash assistance now will stay on welfare for more than 60 months.
In March, 29,944 Maryland households collected money through the TANF program, with hardship cases comprising less than 3 percent.