ANNAPOLIS – The number of Marylanders on welfare has reached a 42-year low, but a larger portion than ever before are children, and the state may need to offer more services if it wants the rolls to keep shrinking.
The total number of welfare recipients is now down to 60,177 – a 74-percent drop since enrollment peaked in 1995. Children now make up about a third of the state’s total remaining cash assistance caseload and, in 17 of the state’s 24 counties, account for 40 percent or more of all cases.
“We’ve been so successful with keeping adults employed that there’s a higher percentage of children – only cases. It’s the new frontier . . . and we need to figure out how we can help who remains,” said Kevin McGuire, executive director of Maryland’s Family Investment Administration. The state agency offers cash assistance, food stamps, and job-placement for families enrolled in the Temporary Cash Assistance program, which is Maryland’s version of the federal welfare program.
McGuire said the caseload reduction is a testament to Maryland’s success in helping adult recipients find jobs, increase their incomes and get off the welfare rolls quickly and permanently. While counties across the state have seen their enrollments drop substantially over the past decade, social services departments must now turn their attention to helping the children as well as the adults who still depend on public financial support, he said.
“If they live most of their childhood on public assistance they are more likely to repeat their codependence on the system,” he said, adding that he would like to see the family investment program work more closely with child welfare services to address the special needs of children and their caretakers, such as counseling, child care and educational help.
The majority of the cases involving children are those in which no adult receives cash assistance. These cases often arise when neither mother nor father is present in the household and the child is raised by a relative caretaker, usually a grandparent, aunt or uncle. The caretakers are exempt from the work requirements and the 5-year time limit that other welfare recipients must meet.
“The traditional families on temporary cash assistance – single mothers with one or two children – have left welfare in droves,” said Catherine E. Born of the Family Welfare Research and Training Group at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “ThatÕs the primary reason why the child-only caseload is now a bigger share.”
Smaller, more rural counties are more likely to see a larger proportion of child – only cases. Half of all such children have prior incidents of abuse or neglect, which means they may need long-term attention from child protective services or family counseling, Born said.
Talbot County has the highest state caseload involving children at about 80 percent. Cathy F. Mols, who directs the county’s social services department, says that’s largely due to the low unemployment rates, which moves adults off the caseloads at a faster rate. The department offers children’s support services and parenting support groups to assist the caretakers.
“We’re really trying to provide them with supportive services so they can continue to take care of these children,” she said. “If these relatives aren’t taking care of them, then the children could be taken care of by the state, and we prefer the family involvement.”
In Worcester County, the cash assistance caseload has dropped by 85 percent in the past five years, and more than half of the remaining recipients are children. Ellen Payne, the county’s family investment assistant director, said she expects that population to remain fairly stable as the relative caretakers raise the children.
“Technically, they could be getting cash assistance for that child for 18 years,” she said. The monthly payment to the caretaker is $220 per child. The county has limited programs in place to handle the cases involving children, but it’s something Payne plans to look into.
Allegany has reduced its caseload by 92 percent in the past decade, the sharpest decline in the state. Richard Paulman, director of the county’s social services department, said the key is to tailor each county’s programs to fit the needs of the jurisdiction.
The county has had some success tracking down child support from the biological parents, which sometimes amounts to more money than the cash assistance program offers. But in most cases, the children must be looked at individually to determine if they should stay on the rolls, he said.
“In some instances, these children are receiving care with family and the state is supporting them,” Paulman said. “But that may be the best thing for the child and a good thing for the state to do.”
Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, who serves on the joint committee that deals with welfare reform, said he would like to see a pilot program modeled after the state’s substance abuse program. The program places addictions specialists in local departments to help screen applicants who may need treatment in order to find a job. A similar program geared toward assessing the needs of children and their caretakers could help provide crucial services.
Because these children have a longer history of receiving cash assistance, they are at higher risk for remaining on welfare for longer periods of time in the future, Born said. “We focus on welfare and what happens to the grown-up,” she said. “But these kids are in that murky zone between welfare and child welfare. It’s a population we need to learn more about and what additional services they might need other than cash money.”