Maryland's welfare rolls have declined 61 percent--141,000 people--in the past four years, according to new state figures, an amount equal to the populations of Frederick, Gaithersburg and Rockville combined.

"The numbers are astounding," said Lynda G. Fox, secretary of the state Department of Human Resources. "We've demonstrated that people receiving public assistance really want to work."

"Even given the low employment rate, it's impressive," said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution.

The figures reflect regional and nationwide trends. This year, Virginia reported that the number of families receiving welfare benefits in that state had dropped 44.4 percent since 1995. Since President Clinton signed the federal welfare law in August 1996, the number of welfare recipients nationwide has dropped 35 percent.

Some critics have voiced doubts about whether the jobs being obtained by welfare recipients pay enough to support a family. "We need to look at what's happened to the income of these families. The question I would ask is, do we believe that poverty among children in Maryland has dropped 61 percent?" said Wendell Primus, an analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who resigned from the Clinton administration in 1996 to protest its support for welfare reform.

The Maryland General Assembly approved the Family Investment Program in 1996, shortly before federal reforms went into effect. The state adopted a "work first" emphasis that sought to provide temporary assistance or noncash benefits to people seeking assistance, Fox said.

"We also changed the culture of the welfare offices," said Connie Tolbert, a spokesman for the Human Resources Department, who was a welfare recipient in Baltimore for 11 years. "A woman told me recently that they told her at her welfare office that she could come back and work on her resume on the computer. That kind of thing never happened before. When I was on welfare, you filled out your papers and left and didn't come back for six months."

The bulk of the reduction in the welfare rolls can be attributed to the new law and not to the booming national economy, according to a study done by the Regional Economic Studies Institute of Towson University. Without welfare reform but with a booming economy, researchers found, the caseload in Maryland would have declined only 8.1 percent.

The Maryland figures also reflected a national trend in which efforts to get people off welfare are more successful in suburban and rural areas than in urban centers. The counties with the largest reductions were Allegany in Western Maryland, which had an 88.9 percent drop; Caroline on the Eastern Shore, which had an 81 percent reduction; and Cecil in the northeast corner, also an 81 percent reduction.

Baltimore City, by contrast, experienced a 51 percent drop. Caseloads in the District of Columbia dropped 26 percent between January 1995 and December 1998.

"We're now seeing two basic kinds of cases: those who have come through doors recently, who we do a pretty good job of moving on to work, and then we have people who have been on for a long time. It is harder to reach and help the second group and they tend to be in cities," Fox said.

"One big problem is that the economy is decentralizing," said Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution. He said his research found that the Baltimore suburbs gained 50,000 jobs between 1993 and 1995, while the city lost 2,600 jobs.

"Welfare reform has brought to the forefront this growing spatial mismatch between welfare and work. The challenge is not only preparing people for work but actually getting them to the job," he said.

Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.

Reduction in Maryland Welfare

Maryland's aggressive effort to reduce welfare has led to a statewide decrease in the welfare caseload by 61.2 percent since January 1995.

County

Welfare cases Jan. 1995

Welfare cases Jan. 1999

Recipient decline*

Percent change*

Anne Arundel

9,390

2,614

-6,776

-72.2%

Baltimore City

105,852

51,285

-54,567

-51.6

Calvert

1,575

346

-1,229

-78.0

Charles

4,837

904

-3,933

-81.3

Frederick

3,224

741

-2,483

-77.0

Howard

2,843

525

-2,318

-81.5

Montgomery

12,675

2,682

-9,993

-78.8

Prince George's

32,447

10,655

-21,792

-67.2

St. Mary's

2,938

560

-2,378

-80.9

* From January 1995 to January 1998

SOURCE: Maryland Office of the Governor