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Ending welfare would be easier with a little state cooperation

October 08, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

One of Washington County's more glowing success stories is the Hunters Green Business Center on Hopewell Road. Companies there employ 2,000 workers and have a need for at least 500 more.

A substantial number of these vacancies could be filled by people in downtown Hagerstown who are now on the government dole, under a program known as Temporary Cash Assistance.

Big distribution companies, including FedEx Ground, Home Depot Direct, PetSmart and Staples all say the same thing: Prospective employees have told them that transportation to work is a problem.

So the Washington County Commissioners, Department of Social Services, the County Commuter transit agency, private business and several other interested agencies all got together this year and agreed on a logical conclusion: Run a county bus route from downtown Hagerstown to the business park.

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Commissioners, armed with a $246,000 state Community Partnership grant, approved the pilot project in June and asked the state for permission to spend the funds. The Governor's Office for Children, perhaps unaware of the definition of "pilot project," rejected the plan because it lacked "sustainability." Pity the Governor's Office for Children wasn't around in the 1820s; they might have saved us from the C&O Canal.

But there has to be a better reason than "sustainability," wouldn't it seem?

"Well, it's the government," said Washington County transit director Kevin Cerrone, diplomatically leaving it at that.

Unfortunately, those words require no further explanation.

The government mandates that people be nudged, or shoved, out of welfare programs and into jobs. But then when a local community gets together to find a way to do it, the government says no.

The paradox within the paradox is that the government won't fund a bus route unless it has riders. But you can't prove to the government there will be riders until you can fund a bus route.

County Commissioner Jim Kercheval says he believes the state can be persuaded rethink its position. Let's hope so.

Even if it fails after a year, the concept certainly would seem to have enough plausibility to warrant a shot. As Cerrone says, the logic is that if people are able to make it to the DSS offices downtown to pick up their cash-assistance checks, they ought to be able to make it to DSS to catch a bus to work.

And, says Partnership for Children and Families director Stephanie Stone, "A lot of these people want to work, but they don't have a car."

"We want to help people become stable and independent. And what better way to do that than to help get them employed?" she said.

Employment raises self-esteem. People start contributing to the tax base instead of taking from it. Noncustodial parents can start paying their child support, an obvious help to kids.

After they've banked a few paychecks they typically are able to buy a car, Stone said, and their opportunities expand.

Sustainable? Shouldn't the goal be that it is not sustainable, that the demand for government service decrease proportionately to the increase in individual independence?

Yet again we find that whatever fires of good intentions government might have, it too often quenches with rules and regulations that go counter to common sense.

Stone pauses a long time when asked if welfare reform has worked. Finally she offers that it has greatly increased the ranks of working poor.

The unemployed poor get both cash and medical assistance. When they get a job they lose both. Since many people in this demographic have illnesses requiring medical care, any financial benefit they gain from working is canceled out by having to pay for their own health care. "They don't want to be on welfare, but they have a medical need" that forces them to stay on it, she said.

Again, the government cripples its own initiative. Maintaining the health care for a welfare recipient turned employee, true, is a cost to the taxpayer. But it is less of a cost than paying health care and cash assistance both - which is what is happening under the current system that discourages people with medical issues from getting jobs.

It is a credit to our local officials and Hopewell businesses - which have indicated they might help underwrite the program and be flexible with shift work - that they are seeking creative ways to, as the clich goes, break the cycle of welfare. So why can't the state be creative and flexible as well?

A downtown/Hunters Green bus route won't be jammed with riders. Tellingly, it is projected to pale in comparison to the route to Wal-Mart. But if it ushers even a trickle of families, one by one, 10 by 10, into financial independence, those numbers will begin to add up over the months and years, and before long you have a new generation for whom "cash assistance" is an unknown term.

No one said breaking the back of welfare dependency would be fast, and no realist said it would come without costs. But it shouldn't have to come this hard.

If a simple bus route can throw big government into a fit, what must be happening in other, vastly more complex areas of welfare reform, and who is suffering because of it?

Our local people are trying their best to succeed and to help our poor people succeed. How refreshing it would be if for once big government were an ally in this cause instead of an enemy.

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