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Anne Arundel's Model Efforts

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28 1997; Page B01

Just three months ago, Wanda Rogers's life was in shambles. Her 25-year marriage had ended, and Rogers was unsure if she could support herself and a teenage son with her part-time job. Having spent her life in low-wage jobs, Rogers thought her chances of finding a better job were bleak. She considered welfare.

But through an ambitious effort to change the course for welfare recipients and people like Rogers, who might have been headed there, the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services stepped in and offered Rogers a way out of poverty.

Now Rogers is set to become the owner of her own van transportation company. She has completed six weeks of specialized training and will get financial help with a van lease, including low-cost insurance and at least one guaranteed government contract to get started.

"They've given me the keys that unlock the door to independence, a world I didn't think was possible," said Rogers, 48, and a mother of two, about the program advisers.

The effort to transform the downtrodden into business owners is one of the innovative ways in which Anne Arundel is trying to comply with the federal mandate to move people off welfare.

When the movement to overhaul welfare swept through Capitol Hill and the White House a year ago, its advocates declared that local jurisdictions were prepared to help the poor if Washington bureaucrats would just get out of the way.

Anne Arundel is widely considered a model of what that overhaul should look like. The number of children entering foster care in Anne Arundel has declined by half since 1991, even as foster care numbers nationwide continue to rise. Welfare rolls have declined by one-third since 1995, keeping pace with the national decline. And the agency's job center for welfare recipients is so successful that it's now used by the general public to search for jobs, get help updating resumes and use phones to call potential employers.

Anne Arundel's efforts have attracted national notice. The county is showing others that bogged-down bureaucracies can change, said Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"The environment of welfare was very sterile, with every stereotype you can imagine about an unmotivated bureaucratic type of government office," Kharfen said. "It was a machine- and paper-driven process that didn't have anything to do with whether or not people were better. In Anne Arundel, there is a real significant change in the way welfare is now run."

The change is occurring in a suburban county on the scenic banks of the Chesapeake Bay, where yachts, sailors and tourists flock from around the world. The county's unemployment rate hovers around 3 percent, and the median household income of about $45,000 a year is well above the national figure of $32,000.

But among Anne Arundel's 460,000 residents are pockets of poor people, in the rural areas of south county, in communities blocks away from the State House in Annapolis, and in the suburbs of Baltimore to the north.

At the end of July, Anne Arundel had nearly 6,200 people receiving monthly welfare checks, down 33 percent since January 1995. The state's healthy economy is credited partly for Anne Arundel's reduction. But state and national leaders also attribute the county's success to its willingness to try new ideas without waiting for instruction from state or federal leaders.

"That way of thinking motivates the business world," said Vesta Kimble, one of two deputy directors at the social services department, "and that's how we run this agency."

A year before President Clinton signed welfare reform efforts into law, Anne Arundel was picked by HHS as one of eight "change the culture" sites that would serve as national models because the county agency's programs already were drawing praise. With the designation came a $50,000 grant, extra administrative support and, most important, the leeway to try even more innovations without seeking federal approval first. It was a license to break the rules.

"When we got the designation, we used it," said Kimble, noting that some ideas were borrowed from agencies in Oregon, Minnesota and California.

Anne Arundel used the HHS grant to start the full-service job center in Annapolis, placing 1,400 people in jobs since September 1995. Kimble refers to the job center as the "busy beehive," partly for its open configuration, a series of small round tables in a spacious room ringed by caseworker offices. The old set-up, with rows of chairs facing forward like a classroom, was less interactive and less friendly, Kimble said.

In July, 1,800 people used the job center, and fewer than 200 applied for cash assistance.

"When you walk in there, you clearly see that it's different," said State Sen. Martin G. Madden (R-Howard/Prince George's), who co-chairs the legislature's joint committee on welfare. "The entire system was an entitlement program where everyone cared about technical eligibility. Nobody was asking, `Why are you here?' Anne Arundel was the first to start asking that question."

But finding people jobs is only part of what Anne Arundel County is doing. Caseworkers learned that most people could be helped by providing child care or reliable transportation instead of cash benefits. So Anne Arundel now provides child care vouchers to people who would find employment difficult without someone to watch their children.

The county also offers two programs to ease transportation concerns. In one, old county government cars are donated to civic groups that pass them along to welfare recipients as they move into jobs. The other, in which Wanda Rogers graduated this week, is training residents to become van drivers and provide much-needed transportation to welfare recipients and the elderly.

But Anne Arundel doesn't want to put only welfare recipients in jobs. Another program directs parents who would otherwise go to jail for not paying child support into jobs and training programs so they don't fall further behind in their payments. Although successful, the program is often criticized as rewarding people who do not deserve extra help.

Anthony Barnes, 31, a participant, disagrees. He was $3,000 behind in child-support payments, standing before an Anne Arundel judge, facing jail time, when Brent M. Johnson, the program's coordinator, stepped forward and asked whether Barnes would like to enter the program.

"I didn't want anything to do with jail," said Barnes, who has since cleared his debt and now attends school and works two jobs. Barnes said the program "gives you some compassion and some care, something men don't get very often."

But that's not the program's bottom line. "The only success indicator is whether they pay or not," Johnson said.

Anne Arundel's Family Support Center is next to the job center in Annapolis, a coexistence unique in Maryland. Most days, the center is crawling with children whose parents are applying for public assistance, studying for their equivalency diploma or attending computer or parenting classes.

"It's a good program," said Jade Rogers, 18, whose year-old son, Ki-Shawn Thompson, attends day care while she participates in twice-weekly parenting classes. "We sit down and talk about how to deal with stress. . . . [Ki-Shawn] doesn't want to leave. He plays all day."

What happens in this brightly colored facility – which also has a nurse who gives immunizations to children and helps pregnant women with prenatal care – is a necessary component of the welfare overhaul, administrators said.

"If we just focus on getting a family employed and not on getting them healthy and productive as a unit, we then improve one aspect of their life, and we end up with child abuse and child neglect," said Paulette Francois, the support center's director.

Preventing child neglect and abuse is one of Edward R. Bloom's top priorities. Bloom has been the agency's social service director since 1981, and before any child is placed in foster care, he must be notified directly. He grills the social worker to ensure that everything possible has been done to keep a child with the parents or extended family.

"It's only after we have exhausted everything that we place a child in foster care," said Dorothy Boyle, the agency's other deputy director.

Since 1991, the annual number of children placed in foster care has dropped from 148 to 60. But Bloom wants to force the numbers down even more by locating and offering intensive services to families before children need such services. He recently sent four social workers to a small census tract in north Anne Arundel to help reduce the 74 cases of reported child abuse near Van Bokkelen Elementary School in the last year.

Anne Arundel's success has attracted attention from throughout the nation, with more than 400 social service workers making the pilgrimage to the quaint streets of Annapolis in the last 18 months to see what is so special.

Bloom leaves the tour-guiding to Kimble, an outspoken former newspaper reporter, who often rolls her eyes or waves her hand in the air dismissively when discussing some state or federal rule that she considers useless. Kimble has even created her own David Letterman-like "Top 10" list of ways to fail at overhauling welfare, mocking the way government usually solves problems:

No. 10, operate a one-size-fits-all program. No. 8, don't ask customers what they need. No. 6, create a task force, with lots of subcommittees and workgroups. No. 4, limit the scope of your services to what the law requires. And No. 1, sit back and wait for someone to tell you what to do.

Kimble's tours are not advertised, but people keep coming, sometimes unannounced.

"We may not be the shrine of welfare reform, but we sure do get a lot of pilgrims," Kimble said. "I don't know if they get any religion."

But that doesn't stop her from preaching.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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