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Work, not welfare, is their goal

May 14, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Her journey from Baltimore to Hagerstown included a 30-day stay at a drug addiction treatment center, followed by a trip to the Department of Social Services. There, she was told that a requirement to receive welfare in the form of temporary cash assistance was that she search for a job.

Her search didn't take her too far.

Marcella Shell, 49, now works in the administration and finance department at the very building where, she said, she was able to turn her life around for her and her two children.

Shell is one of many success stories of the program sometimes unofficially referred to as welfare-to-work - one of the many people who found herself struggling in a difficult time and unable to support her family financially.

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"I think they emotionally support their children. That's why they come here," said David A. Engle, director of the Washington County Department of Social Services (DSS). "They become greater role models to their children."

The number of welfare/jobs cases the department has handled has decreased from 1,300 around 10 years ago to a little more than 300 now, DSS officials said.

In the last fiscal year, which ended in June 2005, 191 people obtained jobs with 107 employers. So far this fiscal year, 137 people have been placed in employment, said Rosalind A. Martin, assistant director for family investment at DSS.

"We're changing lives one by one, and we're changing the community as we change those lives," Engle said. "They go from being tax users to taxpayers."

Engle said that when he first started working in the public welfare sector in 1975, he wanted to give people one chance to find a job. If they didn't, he felt they shouldn't be given another opportunity.

He since has changed his view.

"We can't give up on the people here at Social Services," Engle said. "You focus on the solutions and the successes. We have enough of those that it breeds patience."

Even if a person finds a job after his or her 10th attempt, it's considered to be a success, he said.

More than money



The jobs program was created in 1996, and required DSS to help those receiving temporary cash assistance payments find and keep jobs, Martin said.

DSS works with other agencies in the county to help people acquire not only jobs, but housing, counseling and any other services they might need.

Because transportation is a prominent concern in the county, DSS can help people acquire or repair vehicles. It also operates two vans, called JOBS - Job Opportunity Bus Shuttle - that take people to work.

DSS can help people acquire uniforms or tools needed for a job, helps people complete their rsums and has a phone bank for those who do not have a phone at home. A job coach is on the agency's staff.

Employees who have obtained a job through the program meet once a month for a session called "Work it Out," where they discuss job concerns, ideas and ways DSS can help, Martin said.

Along with transportation, another pressing concern for many in the county is child care. For that reason, DSS works with other agencies to find suitable child care, and administers a subsidy program to help pay for child care, Martin said.

The notion that people can live off welfare often is misguided. A person with one child would receive $386 per month in temporary cash assistance - for no more than five years - and $278 in food stamps a month.

"You get more money actually by working," Martin said.

A person working 40 hours a week and earning minimum wage would earn nearly $1,000 per month before taxes. However, the typical hourly wage of those who acquire jobs via DSS is $8.25 - more than $2 above the new minimum wage of $6.15 an hour.

And they're bringing home more than a paycheck. They're earning self-esteem at the same time, Martin said.

"I think there are a lot of stereotypes out there," Martin said. "I think our customers are very committed to making positive changes in their lives and the lives of their children."

Building skills



Based on income, the program is available to those with little or no income and whose circumstances have forced them to find jobs. Circumstances might include losing a job, a separation or divorce, moving to the area or giving birth to a child, Martin said.

In April, the agency started helping noncustodial parents, typically fathers, find jobs if needed so they can pay child support.

Still, Martin estimated that more than 90 percent of those now taking part in the jobs program are women.

They share some characteristics, including a desire to improve their lives and a desire that their children will lead better lives, Martin said.

Jennifer Barger, 32, said that after giving birth to her daughter in November, she wanted a Monday-through-Friday job so she could spend nights and weekends with her three children.

In addition to her infant daughter, Barger, a single mother, has a 10-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter.

"They're my life," she said.

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