Sineuy Khoundamedth, 52, was a communications officer in Prince Souvanna Phouma's army before the pro-communist Pathet Lao took control of the government in Laos in 1974.
For the past nine months, Khoundamedth has been working for the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour as a cashier at a 7-Eleven store near his two-bedroom apartment in a Hyattsville housing project. He tells an interpreter that he thinks he will be able to continue paying the rent although his family no longer receives cash and medical assistance under the Refugee Act of 1980.
Khoundamedth, his wife Khamsouk and their seven children (the youngest is 4, the eldest 16) came to the United States in December, 1980, after a year in a refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand.
They are among 112,000 refugees nationwide whose welfare benefits have been canceled because they arrived in this country more than 18 months ago.
Before the cutbacks, 309,000 refugees were receiving cash and medical assistance under the Refugee Act of 1980, which provided the aid for up to 36 months to refugees and Cuban and Haitian entrants who are ineligible for general welfare programs. On April 1, the Reagan administration reduced the maximum period for the benefits to 18 months
Max Wallenburg, deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the refugee assistance program was developed to help refugees while they adjust to their new country and to ease the financial burden of such assistance on state and local governments. Wallenburg said any newly arrived refugee is eligible for assistance under the federal act.
After the 18 months, refugees who still need assistance must apply for aid under existing state welfare programs and must meet the same eligibility requirements as other aid recipients. The federal government will reimburse the states for such welfare assistance for an additional 18 months.
Administration officials say the new policy will help alleviate long-term welfare dependency and will provide assistance to refugees on the same basis as nonrefugees. Supporters of the new plan say they believe it will provide incentives for employment.
Maryland ranks 23rd among states in total refugee population, according to Oliver Cromwell of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Montgomery and Prince George's counties began notifying recipients of the new policy early this spring--in English and in their native languages--and both jurisdictions set up programs to help refugees find work and apply for benefits under other welfare programs.
Single people were referred to job placement services, families to general relief programs. Those ineligible for public assistance were referred to private charitable groups.
Montgomery County is one of the few jurisdictions in the country, and the only county in Maryland, that provides a general public assistance for employable persons, says C. D. Lester of the income maintenance section of the Montgomery Department of Social Services. The program, which was designed to help anyone who does not meet eligibility requirements for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and who is not handicapped, provides a one-time grant for shelter.
By May 1 the county had closed out 206 of 452 Indochinese refugee cases, ending their benefits under the federal refugee assistance program. A case may be made up of an individual or a family consisting of several persons. Also closed out were 44 of 85 Cuban entrant cases and six of 36 cases from other refugee groups receiving cash and medical assistance, according to Susan Upmann of the Social Services Department's public assistance office.
In Prince George's County, affected refugees are not so lucky.
Of the 129 refugee cases whose benefits were terminated (of a total of 433 assistance cases), only 14 meet criteria for other county welfare programs such as AFDC, according to Shirley Foster of the county's public assistance office. The average benefit for a single person is about $120, Foster said.
"If a person is aged and has no job or English skills and has never worked since coming to this country and has other health problems," Foster added, "then according to the guidelines, he or she is considered unemployable." In these cases, Foster said, assistance is given until the refugee can improve his English and get work.
Ruth Ann Dawson, who works with refugees for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, thinks the cutback in refugee assistance is "a good thing. Some people are getting lazy," she said. "They have a check coming in every month. Now they will be motivated to go out and get work."
Hang Nguyen, director of Catholic Charities' Refugee Resettlement Program, agrees. "My view is that certain refugees, the employable ones, might not need the traditional services for 18 months under the Refugee Act ," she said.
Eighteen months is long enough for a person to get a job, Nguyen said, noting that others, such as people with children, still should be able to receive assistance.
She acknowledged, however, that single men would not be eligible for such assistance. "We here are very willing to help them to find jobs," she said.
Nguyen said her agency finds 10 to 20 jobs a month for refugees. Though she concedes that the job market is not very good, she says her agency is able to find at least "entry-level" jobs for many people.
Sitting on the floor in his sparsely furnished apartment, with his wife and four of his children, Khoundamedth said he has mixed feelings about his 7-Eleven job. He must work there to support his family, he tells his interpreter, because there are no other jobs for him right now.