Poor people are continuing to be demonized both nationally and locally based on invidious stereotypes. Michael Tanner's fictitious welfare mom who "chooses" not to work is just the latest ("In Maryland, it pays not to work," Aug. 13). The reality on the ground is very different.
At the Homeless Persons Representation Project, we have worked with real welfare recipients since welfare reform began. For the vast majority, welfare provides a short term critical safety net for parents that enable them to transition back to the workforce. These mothers are not motivated by benefit levels, time limits and work requirements, but by strong work ethics, and a desire to achieve independence and provide a safe, nurturing, and happy life for their children.
This reality is reinforced by the data. Since 1996, the University of Maryland has conducted extensive research on welfare recipients called Life after Welfare. This research shows that 70 percent of welfare recipients worked before getting welfare and in the two years after leaving welfare, and that 74 percent are on welfare consecutively for a year or less. Indeed, substantial work effort has been a consistent finding in every Life after Welfare report going back at least 10 years.
Welfare recipients in Maryland are successful despite not getting the fantasy benefits package described by Mr. Tanner. In fact, only 23 percent of welfare families in Maryland receive housing assistance. With the current fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment at $1,257 — and the current monthly welfare benefit for a family of three at $576 — it is no surprise that many families on welfare live in homeless shelters and in unsafe, substandard housing. That's hardly living large on the government dime, as Mr. Tanner asserts.
The small minority of welfare mothers who do not quickly transition to employment struggle with serious challenges like histories of trauma and domestic violence, physical, mental and learning disabilities, children with special needs, lack of a high school diploma, and homelessness. These families require intensive specialized services to successfully transition off welfare, something that the current welfare system is ill-equipped to provide. Removing exemptions and further strengthening work requirements do nothing to solve this problem. Maryland needs more flexibility in its welfare program, not less, so that it can better serve all families.
Carolyn P. Johnson, Baltimore
The writer is managing attorney of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Inc.