The welfare rolls in Maryland's suburbs and rural areas have grown 10 times faster than in Baltimore in the last two years, an unprecedented development that state officials attribute to a new attitude toward welfare in suburban and rural towns as well as to the unavoidable affects of unemployment and inflation.
The state's rapidly expanding food stamp program, administered separately from welfare, shows a similar pattern. The number of Baltimore recipients has increased by 42 percent in the last two years, while the rolls of the rest of the state grew more than three times that much, according to figures obtained from the Department of Human Resources.
The figures mirror the national movement of poverty from its traditional preserve in the inner cities to outlying areas, where factories that fled the cities years ago are now laying off workers who moved with them, officials said. In addition, these officials said, public assistance programs have reached a large percentage of the urban poor in the last decade, but until recently, those programs carried too much of a stigma for many suburbanites and rural Marylanders who qualified for them.
"We're seeing a new population come in for our services," said DHR Commissioner Kalman R. (Buzzy) Hettleman Jr. "We're seeing the elderly, the unemployed, the hidden poor -- people who have never come in before. People are hurting so badly that they are overcoming a traditional reluctance."
Although the number of Baltimore food stamp recipients is still far greater than in the counties, the percentage growth in the food stamp rolls in all 23 Maryland counties far outstripped the 45.2 percent growth in Baltimore. Also, while Baltimore's welfare rolls grew only 1 percent in the last two years, the average growth in the counties was 9.9 percent.
In each area of the state, local officials cite different economic forces that are driving up the number of Marylanders who qualify for and receive public assistance.
Worcester and Talbot counties on the rural Eastern Shore saw their food stamp rolls increase five-fold in the last two years, according to the figures. sSimilarly, the number of families on welfare in Talbot County grew by 25 percent and in Worcester County by more than 50 percent, the DHR figures show.
"Public assistance has never been a way of life in this rural county as much as it has been in urban areas," said Elmire Heist, who directs Talbot County's welfare and food stamp programs. "Our poor people are scattered, so they shop at the same grocery stores as the wealthy people. They didn't like to go to those stores with their food stamps but now the utility bills and the housing costs have made things so tight that the older people and the more hard-core poor don't have a choice."
In Prince George's County, where food stamp rolls more than doubled from 6,066 in October 1978 to 12,856 in October 1980, Ruth Fisher of that county's Department of Social Services blamed chiefly the Washington area cost of living, which she said is becoming unmanageable for more and more people.
In Montgomery County, Maryland's wealthiest jurisdiction, officials attributed the 133 percent increase in food stamp rolls mainly to the influx of Indochinese and Cuban refugees.
In Allegheny County in northwest Maryland, where food stamp rolls doubled and welfare rolls grew by 7 percent, officials pointed to recent layoffs at the county's glass and tire factories, whose problems are directly tied to the ailing auto industry.
In the rapidly growing outer suburb of Anne Arundel County, Department of Social Services official Jean Sisk said her office now serves many more "borderline professionals" -- waitresses, unskilled factory workers and others -- who have lost their jobs or whose hours were cut back in the recession of the last two years.
"These people could support families in years past, but now they need some public assistance, or even total assistance," she said.
She said people suffering from temporary disabilities, who in the past could survive on their savings, are now applying for a special category of welfare benefits targeted at disabled adults.
In Baltimore County, officials attribute much of the increase to the movement of inner-city poor just outside the city limits as they were displaced by highway construction and urban redevelopment in the late 1970s.
The increases in food stamp recipients totaled 44,367 in Maryland's 23 counties and 18,225 in Baltimore, where almost half of Maryland's 132,152 food stamp recipients live, the figures show. The welfare rolls in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program grew by 7,298 in the counties compared to 1,316 in Baltimore. Maryland has 211,594 AFDC recipients, of whom 130,659 live in Baltimore.
Besides the economic causes, new federal regulations that in 1978 eliminated the requirement that food stamp recipients pay money for their stamps also contributed to the growth in the food stamp rolls, officials said. In addition, the Maryland Food Committee, an antihunger group, has for the last two years heavily publicized the food stamp program in an attempt to enroll all Marylanders who qualify for assistance.
The marked increase in public assistance rolls comes at a time then state officials are struggling with a tight budget. As such, local departments have to do more work with the same staff that once handled smaller programs.
In Baltimore County, Wheeler said, the staff is experiencing "burnout," because of the heavier workload. "This has always been a very stable department," she says. But in the last year, our turnover rate on the public assistance staff went from 3 percent to 30 percent. They say the pressure is so bad they just can't stand it."