Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, citing the "economic vise" of federal cuts in public assistance benefits, yesterday announced a program aimed at preventing the "working poor" from giving up and relying totally on welfare.
County officials said the new program is one of the first to be established by a local government to offset the cutback in federal welfare benefits that took effect throughout the country earlier this month. It is designed specifically for the 1,350 families in the county whose household heads work, but still received significant financial and medical benefits until the cutbacks.
Gilchrist said he is asking the county council for an emergency appropriation of $363,000 to pay for the five-month program. He said the money will come from a surplus of $500,000 set aside last year in anticipation of the budget cuts. According to the the Department of Social Services, the total amount of benefits lost by the families for a year is more than $1.3 million.
Under the program, the county will provide funds to buy groceries for working families whose food stamp allocation has been cut off or reduced and will assist pregnant women who no longer can receive increased welfare assistance during their pregnancy. In addition, the county will join with private businesses to provide job training,
At a press conference yesterday, Gilchrist said the county is taking these steps because "these individuals have shown a commitment to work, they have been hit hard by the action of the federal government, and we think they merit rescuing."
The program also is designed to encourage the working poor to "avoid shifting from marginal jobs" to a complete reliance on welfare, said Harriet Herrman, the county's Social Services director.
A basic premise of the plan is that the average member of the working poor belies the stereotype of a welfare recipient who is unwilling to try to support himself.
According to figures compiled by the county, the average person the program will reach is a 31-year-old mother who is widowed or divorced with 11.4 years of education who works 115 hours a month and earns roughly $433.57 per month. Most are employed as clerks, domestics, waitresses, cafeteria workers, or day care providers, the profile said.
"These are not indolent people," said Ed Rovner, a Gilchrist aide. "They are employable people that have the initiative to go out and work."
Alan Kutz, director of labor services for the county said the program might help a clerk learn typing or word processing to increase her employment and earning potential.
To make the program work, the county has enlisted the support of the Economic Advisory Council, a group of county business leaders; the county's Chambers of Commerce; and the Private industry Council to "develop skills training, information on job vacancies, and help them with career development," Gilchrist said.
In addition to spending county funds to provide food, Gilchrist hopes to persuade grocers to grant discounts to help the 511 families whose food stamp allocations will be either cut off entirely or reduced.
Tee O'Connor, excutive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said she has not heard of a similar program in the state. Bruce Talley, associate director of tha National Association of Counties said the idea was unique in enlisting the active support of the private sector.
"It sounds like a great experiment," Talley said. "The federal government has not been able to alleviate the need for services and has just shifted the burden to localities. We can't absorb all of the cuts and the only way out is to get the private sector to have a bigger stake in their communities."
Walter Almeda, chairman of the Private Industry Council, agreed, saying "We feel that this is an opportunity to contribute to a very positive step."