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Hagerstown welfare rolls smaller

September 26, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

Aided by public assistance reforms and a prosperous economy, welfare rolls in Washington County have dipped to the lowest level in recent memory, officials said.

As of Aug. 1, 550 families were receiving monthly welfare checks, compared to 1,350 cases in June of 1996 before the welfare-to-work reforms began, according to figures from the county Department of Social Services.

The 59 percent decrease was greater than officials had anticipated.

"These are changes that no one would have dreamed of when the welfare reform law was passed," said Social Services Director David A. Engle.

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While crediting those who worked their way off of welfare and the staff members who helped them, Engle acknowledged that much of the decrease has been a byproduct of a buoyant economy, which has allowed many welfare recipients to find work.

"Clearly, we've got a situation out there where employers need employees, and there are not enough employees to meet the demand," he said.

But Engle warned that an economic downturn could result in many past recipients returning to public assistance. For that reason, he said, it's important for those who found work to develop their job skills and move beyond the entry-level, mininum-wage positions most of them have been hired for.

"That has to be our focus because we don't want these people to come back on assistance if we have an economic downswing," he said.

The reform measures, which officially began Oct. 1 of last year, placed an emphasis on applicants finding work and eventually leaving welfare. Those who don't comply with the regulations risk having their benefits canceled by Social Services.

Since reform began, 125 families had their welfare checks stopped. Engle said he believes a majority of those people later qualified and were accepted back into the program, but the local Social Services office does not keep statistics.

Those who find work and go off cash assistance often continue to need other Social Services programs. In the year since welfare reform, the cases of food stamps and medical assistance have risen slightly.

"That makes it clear that our people are getting entry-level, mininum-wage jobs," he said.

Engle said the rapid drop in welfare cases is probably nearing its limit. Of the 550 families on cash assistance, he estimated that about 300 qualify for exemptions from the work requirement, such as people with chronic illnesses or parents of infant children.

It is important for those who are able to work to find jobs soon, Engle said.

"We really want to take advantage of this job market and get people a resume," he said.

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