As Reagan administration officials plan major cuts in social services to the poor, they might look a few miles to the northeast, across the Maryland state line, for a real-life preview of what lies ahead. In Maryland, the process is already under way.
Inside a narrow, dimly lit rowhouse in depressed South Baltimore live four children and two welfare mothers who want to work. They have become the faces behind the tally sheets of budget cuts in Maryland's social service programs.
It began in December, when Karen Georgentakis, 27, was visited by a government social worker, who notified her that state-assisted day care was now being limited to "the poorest of the poor." Georgentakis, unemployed at the time, did not qualify as desperate enough for the service. On Jan. 9, her 4-year-old daughter, Danielle, was cut from the rolls of the Good Shepherd Day Care Center, which she had attended for two years.
It got worse when the director of Ggood Shepherd, the only center in the sprawling South Baltimore peninsula that takes public assistance cases, announced that the center would have to close on Feb. 13 because of diminishing state aid. So even though the state deemed Georgentakis' sister-in-law and roommate, Sandy Baker, 21, desperate enough to keep the service, her daughter, angie, also is losing day care. Baker needed the day care for Angie in order to keep her job at a window factory. She receives partial welfare benefits in addition to her minimum wage salary.
To Baker, the situation reached the point of absurdity on Friday, when she was told by her welfare counselor that she would be better off quitting her job and going on full welfare assistance. The counselor explained that because of increasing numbers of welfare recipients in Maryland, the state could allot only $10 extra a month to defray the $96 monthly cost of babysitting for Angie and her 2-year-old, Freddy.
"She really said I'd be better off not working. I don't know if she was serious or what, but I can't do it," said Baker, who is divorced and goes to night school in an effort to get a high school degree and eventually a better-paying job. "I want to better myself. If I quit now, there wouldn't be no going back."
Georgentakis and Baker are not hard to find. There are dozens of mothers like them in the communities surrounding each state-assisted day care center in Baltimore and in Maryland's 23 counties. Unlike Baker, many of them have opted to go back on full public assistance -- at a cost much greater than the $42 a week the state pays for each child placed in a private day care center -- rather than continue trying to support themselves. Others are leaving their children unattended in order to keep their jobs.
The budget-cutting process in Maryland began much as it is beginning in Washington -- with a declaration from the chief executive of bleak economic times and a call for fiscal austerity. Under orders from Gov. Harry Hughes, the Department of Human Resources, which administers social services, welfare and social security, cut 3 percent of its budget, and other departments did the same.
After emotional wrangles within the department and with the governor's fiscal officers, DHR Secretary Kalman R. (Buzzy) Hettleman and his staff made the cuts in those programs that they say do not target "the poorest of the poor," the same people President Reagan, in his meeting with mayors and minority group leaders last week, called "the truly needy."
What this means in simple terms, according to Maryland officials, is that the state is officially pulling out of the business of trying to keep people who are at the margin of subsistence from falling into poverty; and Maryland no longer will be able to use social services to move poor people above the poverty line. Now, they say, they will spend their whole budget maintaining the "poorest of the poor" at their present levels.
"If you think of us as medics on a battlefield, with only a few stretchers," said one DHR official, "we're going to be picking up the dying people whose heads are almost blown off and leaving almost all the other wounded to fend for themselves."
Unlike the proposed Regan cuts, Maryland's DHR cuts are being administered by longtime Democrats with roots in the Great Society.Hettelman, for example, was a director of Baltimore's legal aid foundation and head of the city's Department of Social Services before taking the DHR post two years ago.
"Poor Buzzy," sighed one social service lobbyist in tones of pity rarely heard from an advocate about a bureaucrat. "He should have been DHR secretary in the 1960s when there was lots of money for these programs. This is as painful for him as it is for us."
Although day care came in for the biggest cut in DHR -- $500,000 -- other programs that serve the near-poor, including legal services, home services for the elderly, and aid to battered women, among others, were pared significantly. The money remaining for those programs is to be distributed based on a pecking order of desperation, the officials said.
For example, the DHR manual on day care gives top priority to children who are victims of child abuse and neglect. Next come the children of welfare mothers who work full time during day care center hours. Children of welfare mothers who work at night or part time, or who have lost their jobs and haven't found work after two weeks, usually get put on a waiting list. j
Karen Georgentakis learned about some of the choices that are implicit in these priorities when the state social worker visited her in December. Georgentakis found a night-shift job at a neighborhood sandwich and pizza shop, hoping that, as a full time working welfare mother, she could be assured of keeping the day care service for Danielle. But that wasn't enough since the night shift theoretically left her free to care for Danielle during day care center hours, the social worker explained. (In fact, Georgentakis isn't free during the day, because her 20-month-old son needs continuous medical attention for ear ailments and has to go to clinics almost every week.) And, as in the case of Sandy Baker, even a daytime working welfare mother can't always get the service.
"It makes me angry," said Georgentakis, who speaks more emotionally and more often than her younger sister-in-law. "The government tells you: Go out and get a job and become a productive citizen. I want to work. But they give you no alternatives. We sit here and we hear them say on the radio that they're cutting the budget. And I think: I am one of the statistics they're referring to."
The cuts are far from over. In the next nine weeks of the Maryland General Assembly, further articles in The Post will follow the DHR budget as it moves through legislative committees, where there is considerable sentiment to pare it further or to find ways for Hughes to redistribute the $522 million he alloted the department.
For his part, Hughes has said he hopes to raise welfare benefits above the present level -- $326 a month for a family of four, making Maryland number 32 of 50 states -- but only if the legislature finds money to finance the increase. And if extra money can be found, Hughes has announced he plans to use it first for pay raise for state employes and then, it there is any left for increased welfare benefits.
Even with the benefits at their present level, public assistance payments are to rise $25 million next year because of an unprecedent expansion in the welfare rolls, which are expected to total 218,000 at the end of this year.
Against that backdrop, the General Assembly will begin subcommittee hearings this week on the human resources budget. Last week, fiscal officers quietly gave members of those subcommittees a report on how to cut millions of dollars from the public assistance and social services budgets in case legislators so desire. It included many of the recommendations that surfaced in the Reagan administration's draft proposals -- such as counting the income of step-parents into the welfare grant for children.
Back at the Good Shepard Day Care Center, the three remaining staff members made preparations to close down the longtime community facility. Florence Height, the center's cook, was laid off Friday. Hattie Jones, who has worked at the center for seven years, was wondering aloud what would become of her and the children served by the center.
On the bulletin board was a letter from Gov. Hughes to the center director, in response to a plea to help save the center. It explained the painful budget process in a year of fiscal crisis and closed: "I regret that these necessary measures may have placed a hardship on you and on the families whose children are enrolled in the Good Shepard Day Care Center."