By Dels. Darryl Barnes and Geraldine Valentino-Smith
The drafters are chair of the Black Legislative Caucus and vice chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Health and Human Services, respectively. Both are Democrats representing Prince George’s County in the House of Delegates.
At first glance, Maryland’s poverty rate is lower than many other states — about 9% of Marylanders live below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), according to the census. While this lower rate can be seen as a measure that we are moving in the right direction, further analysis of the data shows that there has been an alarming trend in our state for years: Maryland has one of the highest rates high levels of deep poverty throughout the country.
Under the banner of a historic budget surplus, we can challenge this trajectory.
Deep poverty is defined as household income falling to 50% or less of the FPL, which in 2021 was $6,440 for an individual and $10,980 for a family of three per year. In Maryland, of those living below the FPL, 49.8% live in severe poverty. That means one in two Marylanders living in poverty struggles to make ends meet on extraordinarily low incomes.
Women, people with disabilities, and black and brown households disproportionately live in extreme poverty compared to their counterparts. Not surprisingly, research shows that due to extreme material hardship, people in deep poverty are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, exposure to violence and a litany of other stressors. . Tragically, deep poverty often creates a chronic cycle of generational poverty that is difficult to break.
Unfortunately, many of the households surviving in extreme poverty are the same Marylanders who receive public benefits, because benefit levels fall far short of allowing individuals to reach the FPL. In particular, more than 22,000 families in Maryland receive Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA), which was created as part of welfare reform in the mid-1990s. Two-thirds of TCA recipients are children, and families receiving the TCA use the cash benefits to pay rent, buy clothes and purchase household items.
While the ATT is an essential safety net for those living in the deepest levels of poverty, it is not a pathway to economic stability for the vast majority of recipients. In order to receive the TCA, the adults in the household are required to participate in hard work requirements. Work requirements in public interest programs are criticized for being race-based policies that rely on harmful and false race-based assumptions. In practice, enforcement of work requirements has a disproportionate impact on black and Latino families who are more likely to lose benefits than white families.
Although the original intent of the work requirement may have been for recipients to obtain employment quickly after receiving benefits, numerous studies show that the labor component does not translate into sustainable and stable employment. with decent wages. TCA work programs do not provide families with meaningful opportunities to learn job skills, and so most parents who leave the TCA to work are in unstable jobs in low-wage sectors. In fact, data from the Maryland Life After Welfare report shows that five years after receiving TCA, 80% of families live in poverty and, worryingly, nearly 68% of former recipients live in extreme poverty.
If Maryland is to reduce the number of households living in deep poverty, a critical area in which to focus policy and budget efforts is improving the quality of TCA’s workforce development programs. Too often, families who receive TCAs are forced to participate in temporary, unpaid work experience activities with little or no employment opportunities. Of all the types of work activities recipients are referred to, ATT recipients in these unpaid work experience placements have the most difficulty finding employment after ATT and, overall, earnings lowest after TCA. Maryland—compared to other states—places TCA recipients in unpaid work experience placements at much higher rates.
Now is the time to reinvent our state’s workforce development programs. Families living in deep poverty face ingrained stigma, systemic oppression, and personal barriers that cannot be ameliorated within the current structures of our safety net programs. Instead of centering work participation measures as a sign of success, we need to center family goals and needs. We need to value caring responsibilities and help families decide when they are able to work and allow families to choose their work placement.
Instead of offering the unpaid labor of ATT recipients to the lowest bidder, we must partner with innovative education and skills-building programs that provide meaningful opportunities to secure sustainable employment in growing industries at high salaries. Making workforce development programs work is a bipartisan ideal: we want to affirm that the contracts we make with job placement sites produce tangible employment opportunities for recipients. Otherwise, inefficient workforce programs are not a good investment.
This session, we can work to ensure that Maryland offers more responsive and supportive workforce programs that collectively build a better future for workers, employers, and families in Maryland.