By Caitlin Johnston, Carl Straumsheim, and Kate McGonigle
Special to Capital News Service
The number of Maryland families who need government help to make ends meet has reached record levels.
More than 700,000 people receive food assistance, the most in state history. A record 70,000 people depend on emergency cash assistance. And the demand for the state's child care subsidy program has caused officials to impose an indefinite freeze on new applicants.
Yet state and federal officials are budgeting less money for the safety net in the coming fiscal year. The move reflects the government's confidence in the economic recovery, based in part on the fact that demand appears to have plateaued for most state-administered assistance programs.
Others question whether it is overly optimistic to cut back at a time when the state's assistance programs are still swollen with unprecedented numbers.
"It took from January 2008 to February 2012 to double the number of people enrolled in the Food Supplement Program," said Neil Bergsman, director of the Maryland Budget & Tax Policy Institute, a nonpartisan budget analysis organization. "It's not going to go down all that way in one year."
Bergsman questioned whether the department is projecting positive estimates to balance the state budget--a constitutional requirement in Maryland. The state faces a $1.1 billion deficit that legislators hope to eliminate over the next two years.
Pat Hines, the director of communication for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said the budget is "our best projection of what the citizens of Maryland need in the next fiscal year."
"We think that our budget is accurate," Hines said. "And we're optimistic about the direction of the economy and of our numbers."
However, a report by the Department of Legislative Services Office of Policy Analysis suggested that services to families could be affected, since funding meant for struggling families would have to be spent on paying down the shortfall. If not, "the negative balance will just move from year to year," the report said.
Demand has been so high that the Department of Human Resources, which helps Maryland families with child care, cash and food assistance and medical services, was forced to request an additional $30 million in state funding in fiscal 2012. The shortfall occurred even though federal funding for the department has doubled from about $1 billion to nearly $2 billion each year since before the recession. An emergency fund created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to help states with rising demand also ran out by December 2010.
Should need rise again and exceed the budget, Hine said, the Department of Human Resources will again seek supplemental funds from the legislature.
While the numbers of needy families are higher than at any other point in history, the figures do not include the thousands of households who depend on food banks and charities because their income is too high for public assistance. To qualify, a family usually has to make no more than twice the Federal Poverty Level, or $40,000 for a family of three.