- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

Washington-area welfare rolls have been cut in half after the public and private sector, prompted by welfare reform legislation passed in 1996, teamed up to provide job training and placement services.

Analysts say welfare cases are down because of the strong economy, nonprofit and governmental organizations' efforts, and a push by employers to find workers in the tight labor market.

Despite the progress, persistent challenges like transportation and child care continue to test whether people leaving welfare can find and keep a decent job. And if the economy dips into recession, those entering the work force at the ground level could be the first ones shut out of work opportunities.

It hadn't really occurred to Tonya Frazier to try to find work before Congress passed welfare reform legislation.

She had received public assistance for 14 years, since the birth of her first child. Most of the people she knew were also on welfare.

"That was all I was around, that was all I knew," says Ms. Frazier, 35. "I was not planning on working no more."

That changed with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which refocused welfare programs on encouraging families to get off public assistance and find work.

Ms. Frazier now works for Capital Commitment, a nonprofit that offers telecommunications training to people on public assistance. Companies such as CVS Pharmacy, Mills Corp. and Marriott International also have special programs for welfare recipients.

The old welfare program was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a grant of $16.5 million per year that will expire in 2002. The government is beginning to evaluate the program, and may re-authorize it for another block of time to help cushion people who have gotten off welfare in the event of a recession, says Ron Haskins, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Metropolitan-area TANF cases fell nearly 50 percent from 1996 to 2000, though the drop was less dramatic in the District, which has the preponderance of cases. About 16,300 are now on the rolls in the city, down from 25,700 in January 1996, according to the Brookings Greater Washington Research Program.

"Since the welfare reform act, there have been three reasons welfare rolls have come down as much as they have," says Rachael Rowland, a spokeswoman for Maximus, which runs welfare-to-work programs for cities, counties and states.

She says the act itself, the strong economy, and involvement of for-profit and nonprofit organizations in implementing work programs have brought rolls down.

Carol Meyers, a fellow with the Brookings program, said the District got a late start because of the city's financial problems and did not kick off welfare reform efforts until spring 1997.

"D.C. has not aggressively tried to push people off, they've tried to help people off," says Gregory Acs, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.

While some states withhold payments to recipients who are not looking actively enough for a job, the District does not.

Mr. Acs conducted a study, released last month, on the status of people who had left TANF. In his sample, 60 percent were working when they were interviewed in late 1999, a year after they got off welfare. He says the District's employment rate for former welfare recipients is roughly in line with other areas.

Another 19.5 percent of survey respondents had worked at some point during the year.

Working for a living

Ms. Frazier, a resident of Northwest, started working for Capital Commitment in August 1997. Her caseworker told her she had to find a job because her public assistance would eventually cease. After welfare reform legislation was passed, recipients were allowed 60 months of assistance before TANF would be cut off.

With little job experience, she was referred to Capital Commitment. The nonprofit telecommunications training school, founded in 1990, has graduated about 1,500 students, says executive director LaVerne Boykin.

The graduates, both welfare recipients and others who needed training, found jobs with Verizon, Lucent, Nortel Networks and other companies, she says. Those companies fund the school, as does the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

Ms. Frazier has stayed with the organization, and her wages have risen from $5.25 to about $10 per hour.

Paula Guillory is another former welfare recipient now happy to be supporting her kids on her own.

Ms. Guillory, like Ms. Frazier and most welfare recipients a single mom, was on public assistance for five years.

"I didn't really want to leave my kids with anybody," says Ms. Guillory, 33. So she cared for her boys, now 5, 11, and 15, with financial support from her parents and then welfare.

When they had all reached school age, she contacted the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

"I felt like it was time for Paula to start taking care of her kids," Ms. Guillory says.

The department sent her to a job preparation program at Capital Commitment, and she landed a position at the District's citywide call center, referring callers to various departments.

"I love getting up in the morning, getting my kids ready," she says. "They love it, 'cause they know mommy has money every two weeks."

Not all welfare-to-work program participants are so successful. Ms. Guillory says of the five women who went to the call center with her, two were fired, two were hired and one was transferred.

Job connections

The Department of Employment Services partners with employers, nonprofits and other government agencies to find TANF recipients work.

Its caseload has been increasing as TANF expiration approaches, says Charles Jones, director of welfare-to-work programs for the department.

Program participants can end up in nonprofit training programs like Capital Commitment, programs that employers run, or on-the-job training at government sites like the call center.

At those sites, about 60 in all, the department pays workers' wages for the first six months as they learn the ropes. The arrangement allows more flexibility to meet with job or drug abuse counselors, Mr. Jones says.

The department also partners with 37 private companies, which pay employees' wages themselves.

In late January, the agency and CVS opened a cooperative job center in Southwest. CVS will use the center as a hiring tool, training photo lab and pharmacy technicians there, for example.

Hotel operator Marriott trains welfare recipients on-site. Its program, Pathways to Independence, holds classes of eight to 15 persons, training them in life skills and so-called "soft skills" such as dependability, communication, working in a team environment and accepting and giving criticism.

These skills are "a lot of the things that you and I may take for granted," says Fred Kramer, director of community employment and training for Marriott.

"Some of our folks may not have had any role models whatsoever … The underlying theme really is building their self-esteem," he says.

The company gets referrals from groups like Job Corps, a public-private job training program for at-risk youth, and Goodwill, a nonprofit provider of employment services for people with disabilities or economic disadvantages, Mr. Kramer says.

Training each participant in a six-week, 180-hour course costs about $6,000, about half of which is subsidized by government and nonprofit agencies, he says. Marriott takes care of the other half.

The cost is worth it, Mr. Kramer says, both for the addition of a worker and the chance to enhance the company's image.

Retention rates for employees who go through Pathways to Independence are about 50 percent, about 10 percent higher than for other workers in the high-turnover hospitality industry, he says.

"We're filling positions and we're getting great public relations out of it," he adds.

It's Rodney Carroll's job to convince other companies to follow Marriott's lead. As president and chief executive officer of the Welfare to Work Partnership, he asks companies to commit to hire people off welfare.

The nonprofit has 20,000 members, 1,200 of them in the Washington area, which have hired 1.1 million welfare recipients in the past three years, Mr. Carroll says.

Companies are attracted to these potential workers because they can get tax credits; nonprofit organizations act to support the employees; and retention rates are high, he says.

Arundel Mills, the Mills Corp. mall that opened in November in Hanover, Md., also draws on welfare recipients to work for its merchants. The mall partnered with Arundel Community College and the National Retail Federation to develop a training program.

Its on-site retail skills center serves not only people on welfare, but also students, the elderly and special-needs individuals, says Bridget Garra, manager of Mills Access to Training and Career Help at the mall.

But even after workers get retail and people skills training, they still face barriers, Ms. Garra said.

Overcoming obstacles

Two factors that can be a problem for any employee transportation and child care tend to be less easily resolved by welfare recipients because of their high cost.

The workers live where the jobs are not. In the Washington area, employees are needed in Northern Virginia, but many out-of-work welfare recipients live in the District and cannot afford a car. Navigating multiple bus transfers can be time-consuming and Metro does not reach many areas.

Mr. Kramer of Marriott says government agencies and nonprofits help his company provide transportation and child care for employees.

But there will still be workers, like Ms. Guillory, who wait until their children are in school to find a job.

Mr. Carroll says the partnership's member companies are trying to find creative ways to break down barriers for employees. Bank of America, for example, pays grandmothers to care for their grandchildren.

Welfare recipients may also face the obstacles of drug abuse or domestic violence. That is another issue for which employers turn to support agencies.

And since welfare reform laws have been in place for several years, many of the people who were most willing to work and were most employable have found jobs, says Ms. Rowland of Maximus. Those that remain may need more support.

In addition, there are the barriers of education and work experience. Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, conducted a study of the job market for welfare recipients two years ago.

"What we found, much to my surprise, … while [employers] were interested in what education level workers had, they were much more interested in work readiness," he says.

A lack of work preparedness can be addressed by various welfare-to-work training programs, those who run them say.

Welfare families' future

If welfare recipients face these obstacles during the longest economic boom in U.S. history, what happens as the economy starts to slow?

"As this program was being implemented over the last three years, those were the best years in which to do it," Mr. Fuller says.

Mr. Acs of the Urban Institute says that in times of recession or economic slowdown, companies traditionally try to get by with fewer entry-level workers.

He says that if the debate on whether to re-authorize TANF happens during a recession, welfare reform laws could change.

Mr. Haskins of Brookings thinks perhaps they should.

"The key here to me is to make sure [former recipients] can come back on welfare," he says. "Congress should not put things on automatic pilot."

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