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Welfare rolls in Tri-State shrink

March 04, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

When Paulette Palmer's husband left four years ago, she had to go on welfare, receiving cash assistance to support her and her two young children.

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In January 1998, the Hagerstown Junior College student stopped receiving cash assistance and was told to get a job as required by the 1996 welfare reform law.

Because of those changes, many welfare clients in the Tri-State area can receive cash assistance for up to two years and then must be employed or on track for employment through job training or college.

Since Welfare-to-Work programs went into effect more than two years ago, welfare rolls in the Tri-State area have dropped by as much as 75 percent.

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People who had received cash assistance from the government for years found jobs, said Kathy Boylan, community services manager for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources in Martinsburg.

"When there were more rules and regulations made to help us enforce the program, people became motivated," Boylan said.

Many clients can receive cash assistance for a maximum of five years. Exceptions include the disabled and people with children younger than 12 months.

"We kind of went from an entitlement program to (being) job coaches," said Rosalind Martin, Washington County's assistant director for family investment.

Hagerstown Community College and the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation help welfare clients prepare and train for jobs, Martin said.

Daniel Lee and his wife, Myrtle, both got jobs with the help of the WAGES job preparation program at Hagerstown Community College, said Lee, 32, of Hagerstown.

Last October the couple and Myrtle Lee's three children moved to Hagerstown without jobs after he lost his lease in Washington, D.C., Lee said.

Lee said the cash assistance his wife received and the WAGES program helped point them in the right direction.

"It kind of motivates you to do what you have to do," Lee said.

Within two months of moving to Hagerstown, both had jobs and she was no longer receiving cash assistance, he said.

Employers who hire people on welfare could be eligible for state and federal tax credits, said Bill Kelly, job service supervisor with the Labor Department's local office.

Martin said the decline in the number of clients receiving cash assistance began immediately after welfare reform started. The maximum monthly grant for a family of two on cash assistance in the county is $313, she said.

"We're blessed with having a great economy right now. I think if the economy changes, that could be a problem," Martin said.

Now the Washington County Department of Social Services is working to help former welfare clients retain their jobs so they don't return to cash assistance, she said.

Tri-State welfare officials had mixed feelings about whether their welfare rolls could drop any further.

"Our goal is to see everyone that can be employed become employed, but we've certainly reached a point where we've leveled out," Martin said.

Boylan said she believes the welfare rolls in the Eastern Panhandle also have stabilized.

Susan Aspey, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare in Harrisburg, said she was optimistic the number of people receiving cash assistance statewide will continue to drop.

While welfare reform has been successful, Tri-State welfare officials caution that doesn't necessarily mean all of those people are working or aren't receiving other forms of public assistance.

An exact number of people no longer collecting welfare who are holding down jobs was not available, but welfare officials believe it's a significant portion.

Statewide in West Virginia, 6,765 of 19,191 cases in 1998 were closed because people left the welfare rolls for a job, Boylan said.

Another 3,418 of those 19,191 cases were closed without a reason given, she said.

Aspey said Pennsylvania has no way of tracking how many welfare recipients went on to jobs so the state is creating a database to track employment and wages.

Government savings from welfare reform have been reinvested into support programs to help people get off and stay off welfare, officials said.

Many people no longer on the welfare rolls remain eligible for food stamps and medical assistance, Martin said.

Those who are employed could be receiving public assistance for day care, transportation or other support services.

While Palmer no longer receives cash assistance, she uses food stamps, lives in Section 8 housing, receives day-care vouchers and gets public medical assistance for her children.

Palmer's experience with welfare reform wasn't all positive.

"I was very bitter when they sat there and they told me I had to go to work, because I already knew what I wanted to do," said Palmer, 35.

With an Associate of Arts degree in early childhood, Palmer wanted to stay on welfare until she completed her bachelor's degree so she could become a special education teacher.

That would have allowed her to get off public assistance completely, Palmer said. Instead, it will take her longer to complete school and to stop needing some kind of public assistance.

She plans to start taking classes part time at Hood College in August while working part time as a substitute teacher.

Martin said welfare clients already in an educational program can complete it, but they can't start pursuing a bachelor's degree without taking on approved work activities.

"We support her efforts, but working is still the number one goal," Martin said.

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