WASHINGTON – Despite the economic downturn and rising unemployment, the average number of Marylanders on welfare fell from 68,221 in fiscal 2001 to 65,565 in fiscal 2002.
The decline continued a six-year trend that has seen the state’s overall public assistance caseload fall 68 percent since welfare reform began in the mid-1990s, a drop that mirrored nationwide statistics.
The Maryland Department of Human Resources said there are about 150,000 fewer people receiving assistance since state welfare reform efforts began — although the rate of reduction appears to be slowing.
State officials hail the declines in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as proof that welfare reform has been a success, but advocates say the falling numbers do not mean poverty is improving in the state.
Karen Czapanskiy, professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Law in Baltimore, said that local welfare offices, especially those in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, are forcing recipients out through “administrative sanctions” in an effort to keep their numbers down.
“If you are going to keep your TANF roll declining, you have to make sure that people in high-unemployment, high-poverty areas get kicked off the rolls,” Czapanskiy said.
Maryland Department of Human Resources spokesman Richard Larson disagreed, saying no one is being “hassled off” the rolls. Larson said that while there are sanctions that force people off assistance, they all stem from legitimate non- compliance by the recipient.
Larson said that 18.3 percent of those who left the TANF program between April 2001 and March 2002 were “sanctioned” off because they could not meet work requirements that come with the program. Many of these people, he said, “have more problems . . . and are more resistant” to the rules.
Advocates contend, however, that many of the TANF “leavers” are also dealing with substance abuse, mental illness and illiteracy, conditions that make it difficult for them to meet the state’s basic standards.
Czapanskiy said one reason many recipients wind up being kicked off the rolls is because “the hassle factor has been much larger than the service factor” for them. She said bureaucrats often require that participants attend excessive numbers of meetings, or put them in programs that set them up to fail.
“There is no point in being put in a program to learn how to write up a resume,” when illiteracy is the real problem, said Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for the Catholic Charities chapter of greater Baltimore.
But Larson said state guidelines are not designed to force people out or make life difficult for participants. The department simply wants people to hold up their end of the deal by following the state’s plan, he said.
“We’re calling them in and saying, ‘These are the program rules and you have to comply,'” Larson said. “The goal of the full-family sanction is to clearly underline a message to the people about work and independence.”
Meade said the overall goal of independence is compromised, however, when the focus is placed on strict guidelines rather than individual needs.
“The key to it (success) is understanding the individual strengths and needs, making sure that the work activity programs are geared towards what the family needs,” to succeed, Meade said.
The state declines are reflected across the country, as the national welfare rolls fell 6.2 percent in 2002, marking the sixth year of consecutive decline. Nationally, TANF caseloads have fallen 59.2 percent in that time.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the declines disprove skeptics who said reform “would fail in a less-strong economy.”