- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2002

BALTIMORE (AP) The new year brings with it a federal deadline on welfare payments, but state officials said the hundreds of affected Maryland families will not lose their monthly checks if they are cooperating with caseworkers.

The five-year lifetime limit on receiving aid was central to the 1996 federal welfare-reform law. However, officials at the state Department of Human Resources are assuring advocates for the poor that the deadline will not be used to cut benefits to Maryland residents.

They said the rolls have been reduced enough that a hardship exemption will cover those who can't find jobs or whose jobs don't pay enough although department officials still are working out the definition of hardship.

Jack Tweedie, a welfare-reform expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the deadline still sends an important message to recipients.

"I think what time limits said was, 'We expect you to be off welfare in a certain amount of time, but we're going to look at your case specifically,'" Mr. Tweedie said. "The hard part is figuring out what cases deserve exemptions and which ones don't."

The welfare-reform law will expire in September, and Congress is beginning to debate its reauthorization. Meanwhile, the recession and the accompanying layoffs could push some people back onto the rolls.

Hundreds of Maryland families went off welfare in the past six months. In June, 730 families around the state were on course to exhaust their lifetime welfare benefits in January. By December, that number had been reduced to 384, with 292 of those in Baltimore.

State records show almost one-fourth of those who left welfare did so because their earnings were too high to qualify for aid.

The rest failed to cooperate in some way either by not showing up for appointments, not giving information or not participating in "work activities." Some of those might have to go back on the rolls.

State officials, however, "think that a lot of people who don't come in … have found jobs," said Karen Czapanskiy, a University of Maryland Law School professor who represents welfare clients. "These are people who have been on for 55 months. How did they suddenly find a job?"

The county with the next-largest group facing a potential cutoff is Prince George's, with 62 families hitting the five-year limit today. More than 2,000 Maryland families will reach their five-year limits sometime in the next year, if they stay on welfare.

The state, however, can designate up to 20 percent of its welfare recipients as hardship cases. That limit would not be exceeded until October 2004, even if every Maryland family currently receiving welfare stays on the rolls, said Mark Millspaugh, chief of the Department of Human Resources' bureau of work systems.

Since welfare reform took effect in January 1997, Maryland's caseload has dropped by more than two-thirds. About 29,300 cases remained as of last month, 9,500 of them children's cases that are exempt from time limits. The drop in cases occurred mostly during the economic boom of 1999.

Those who have stayed on despite incentives and punishments designed to direct recipients toward jobs often have barriers to working that caseworkers are ill-equipped to handle, according to a recent study by the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Robin Taylor, 36, a Baltimore mother of seven, has been off and on welfare for 18 years. Her five-year limit hits today.

The high-school graduate has had several jobs since the reform began, but none lasted longer than two months.

"Something always came up," she said.

Once it was depression, then there were problems with her now-incarcerated husband, including domestic violence. The latest barrier is her 2-year-old daughter, who cries all day when someone other than Miss Taylor cares for her.

Miss Taylor said she is hoping caseworkers deem her a hardship case.

"They're saying I have to let her go [to day care] anyway, with someone," she said, "because I have to go to work or go into a work activity, or they're not going to be able to help me at all."

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