WASHINGTON – Maryland’s welfare enrollment fell to 68,643 in July, the lowest level since 1963, according to the state’s Family Investment Administration.
State officials are touting the decline as a sign of an improving economy, while advocates point to increasing numbers of the nation’s poor as evidence to the contrary.
“It is inaccurate to point to the decline in welfare rolls as evidence that families are substantially better off,” said Steve Hill with the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute.
The state’s numbers reflect national welfare enrollment, which in the first quarter of 2004 dropped to fewer than 2 million families for the first time in more than 30 years, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The state drop means families are doing what is needed to be self-sufficient, said Kevin McGuire, director of the Family Investment Administration. The numbers included families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as well as other state aid programs.
Families want to be able to provide for themselves, McGuire said, and Maryland’s welfare program encourages its recipients to find employment, by requiring them to participate in work activities, such as job training and education.
And families that do leave welfare are often still eligible for food stamps, day care assistance and Medicaid, which can help them make their transition off of state support, McGuire said.
“We really are providing a safety net for working families,” he said.
Advocates are not convinced. The Census Bureau in August announced that poverty nationwide grew from 11.9 percent in 2002 to 12.3 percent in 2003. Maryland’s poverty level, at 8 percent, did not change significantly in the same period.
Hill said welfare enrollment began decreasing in 1996, when the federal government instituted reforms that increased work requirements and established time limits. The reforms also dramatically cut funding as soon as families begin working, Hill said, regardless of how well their new jobs pay.
That leaves former welfare families still struggling, said Deborah Povich, director of the Job Opportunities Task Force.
“They’ve not reached economic self-sufficiency even though they’re working and they’re working hard,” Povich said.
Not so, said McGuire. The state does work to ensure that families have adequate support before cutting their benefits, he said, which is why Maryland has never dropped anyone who has reached the five year cut-off period.
“If people aren’t ready, we don’t kick them off,” he said.
Families finding employment may lose their benefits or have their assistance cut, depending on their income and family size, but they do not lose their support before they are ready, he said.
But that is exactly what happens, said Lynda Meade of Welfare Advocates.
She said the decreasing enrollment does not indicate an improving economy, just that the state is becoming more efficient at kicking families off welfare, whether they are ready or not.
For example, Meade said a single mother with two kids who earns $800 a month, far from self-sufficiency, would no longer be eligible for welfare in Maryland.
“The goal is to get a job, any job,” Meade said.
And having any job does not ensure self-sufficiency, Povich said. Maryland has more than 100,000 working-poor, she said. That they are leaving welfare is more a reflection of Maryland’s lack of compassion for those families than anything else, Povich said.
“The question should be, ‘Are there fewer poor people?’ not fewer people on the welfare rolls,” she said.
-30- CNS 10-12-04