ANNAPOLIS – Most Marylanders who leave welfare go to work and stay off public assistance, according to a recent report, but those exiting most recently have had a tougher time doing so.
“Maryland’s caseload has dropped 68 percent since the beginning of welfare reform. The question is, ‘Well, what happened to everybody?'” said Richard Larson, a policy and research director at the state Department of Human Resources. “This report answers that question, and it answers the question very positively.”
Finding work is the most common reason for closing welfare cases, accounting for 30 percent of cases closed since 1996, according to the eighth Life After Welfare report released by the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work.
More former welfare recipients are working than case-closing reasons show, Larson said. About 50 percent of people who left welfare were working afterwards, the report shows.
“People are simply dropping out of welfare, entering the employment system, and not telling us,” Larson said.
But those leaving welfare since 2002 have had a harder time finding and keeping jobs.
“Later leavers are trying to get jobs that are a little tougher to find,” said Larson. “It’s not at all inconsistent with the experience of all job seekers today.” Earlier leavers were getting jobs in the midst of a “red-hot economy.”
Among people leaving welfare most recently, about 45 percent were employed during the first three months after they left, but the rate dropped – 38 percent were still working nine months after exiting.
Employment rates for those leaving welfare earlier only dropped from 51 percent to 46 percent over six years.
“It may be that the most recent group had more barriers,” said Deborah Povich, a researcher with the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore. “The economy certainly has had an impact on the ability of people to find jobs.”
The types of jobs those on welfare commonly get – jobs in employment agencies, food service and department stores, the study found – are part of the problem, she said.
“When we look at where people are being placed, these are low-wage jobs that will probably never financially sustain a family,” Povich said. And even though the study shows earnings increasing over time, “Their wages are still lousy.”
Many of those leaving welfare need help to build the skills they need to get a better job, she said.
“The key is to get skills that you and your family can benefit from,” said Russia Singleton, a 31-year-old Baltimore woman, who said she needs to turn to welfare about every two years.
“It’s been like a seesaw for me – off and on, off and on,” she said. She’s worked in several jobs that paid a little over minimum wage, never more than $8.50 an hour, to support her two teenage children.
“Rent’s about $350, so if you’re bringing home $500 a month, you’re barely making it,” she said.
Singleton is now completing clerical training at the Caroline Center in Baltimore, which offers several programs to help unemployed or underemployed women train for jobs that allow for growth and advancement.
“That’s what I’m looking for, something that will advance me in the future,” Singleton said.
The poor economy also could be at work in another statistic found by the report – that a higher percentage of welfare clients were kicked out of the program for failing to meet work requirements. Of those leaving welfare before 2002, 11 percent were sanctioned compared to almost 21 percent of those exiting more recently.
“The fact that they are being sanctioned is of some concern,” said Lynda Meade, chairwoman of Welfare Advocates, a statewide coalition that looks at welfare issues. “They lose every dime of their benefits. . . . They now have no other means to pay rent, buy toothpaste, pay gas and electric bills.”
The early years of welfare reform were spent dealing with recipients who had fewer barriers than those still on welfare, which Larson said may account for more sanctions.
Others who have been sanctioned return to welfare quickly by meeting work requirements – which, according to Larson, means sanctions have been effective in proving to recipients that there are consequences for not complying with regulations.
“The sanction is not to get people off welfare and create caseload decline,” he said. “They (sanctions) underline our message of individual responsibility and independence . . . This is serious business.”