The number of people on welfare in Southern Maryland has dropped by nearly 80 percent in the past four years, according to state Department of Human Resources figures released by the governor's office.

Area social services officials say the steep decline can be credited partly to the strong economy and partly to Maryland's made-to-order welfare reform, under which counties try to tailor their programs to the needs of their residents.

In St. Mary's, Calvert and Charles counties, federally mandated sanctions that cut off benefits for people who show no effort to find a job have been used in fewer than 20 cases.

The area's recidivism rate -- the number of former welfare recipients who reapply for benefits after working -- also is lower than expected, said Catherine Born, an associate professor at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work. Under the federal welfare reform law that took effect in 1996, people may receive assistance for a lifetime maximum of five years.

"Recidivism does not appear to be a problem in Southern Maryland at this time," said Born, author of "Life After Welfare." "In Maryland, we really have done an excellent job of trying to develop a welfare reform program that makes sense for the state and its residents."

The reductions in Southern Maryland have outpaced the statewide 61 percent decline in welfare cases since the beginning of 1995. That is consistent with national trends that show efforts to get people off welfare have been more successful in suburban and rural areas.

Each Southern Maryland county has a specialized welfare program that targets three basic needs: employment, child care and cash assistance. In Calvert County, where cases dropped 78 percent, a "Bridges for Success" plan includes teams of workers to help welfare recipients with transportation and other obstacles, a two-week job readiness seminar, high school diploma classes and health care, said Eileen Weems, assistant director of Family Investments in the Calvert County Social Services office.

Weems said the program's success is largely a result of long hours clocked by case managers, some of whom pick up their clients from work late at night if rides fall through, or drop them off on weekends when buses are not running. Still, Weems said, a turn in the economy could spell disaster for many first-time workers.

"Our customers are in entry-level positions, competing with college kids and high school kids," she said. "If the economy declines, they're the first ones to be let go and they are going to be right back where they started. If the economy declines, we're going to find that caseloads are going to rise."

Michael and Donna Kinsel signed up for assistance in Calvert County after they moved to Maryland from Michigan, following the promise of a job. The job didn't pan out and Michael, 35, was left unemployed for seven months. It was Christmastime, and Donna couldn't find work. The Kinsels, who live in Lusby with their 4-year-old son, are now off the welfare rolls and back in the work force: Michael is an electrical technician and Donna runs a day-care service out of her home. The couple agreed that Social Services had helped them, but they said the system isn't flawless.

For example, the Kinsels come from working-class backgrounds, where they already had learned to craft resumes and hone interviewing skills. But the job-readiness class was mandatory so the couple said they wasted valuable job-hunting time in classes that didn't teach them anything new. They also said some people are pressured off welfare too early.

"There were people with physical and mental disabilities in class, and they had a really big push to put them into a work force they weren't ready to deal with," Michael Kinsel said. "There were a couple of people who should have been in a lot of counseling before they were taken off the rolls. But it looks good on paper."

In St. Mary's County, where the number of cases has fallen by 80.9 percent, a strong community partnership and more streamlined services have paid off, said Catherine Williamson-Hardy, assistant to the director of county Social Services. Local agencies -- such as the county Health Department and the Minority Business Alliance -- give time, money, jobs, counseling and budgeting advice to welfare clients, Williamson-Hardy said.

"Customers are surprised when they come in," she said. "They may just want to get a check and we talk to them about getting their GED. We want to show them that this is the goal of the county and not just Social Services."

A Charles County Social Services employee calls the Clinton-era welfare reforms "the best change that has happened to the system in its 65 years." The county's program, regarded as one of the state's most innovative, focuses on transportation to jobs from rural homes, all-day Head Start services and a marketing plan -- Maryland's first for welfare -- that includes a logo, brochures, billboards and newspaper ads, said Susan Hance, assistant director for Family Investment at Charles County Social Services. The county's caseload has dropped 81.3 percent in four years.

"The economy is strong, so this was a great time for welfare reform," said Hance, who has worked in Social Services for 32 years. "When you had an entitlement program, it was hard to see changes in your clients. Some days I would ask myself, `Why am I doing this?' [Reform] has been great for my job satisfaction."

Welfare Decline in Southern Maryland

Since the beginning of 1995, a combination of national and state reforms and a booming economy has led to a drop of about 80 percent in the number of welfare cases in Southern Maryland. Statewide, cases are down more than 60 percent.

COUNTY JAN. '95 JAN. '96 JAN. '98 JAN. '99

Calvert 1,575 1,433 788 346

Charles 4,837 4,151 1,939 904

St. Mary's 2,938 2,733 1,153 560

Maryland 227,887 207,800 133,224 84,617

SOURCE: Maryland Department of Human Resources