From Welfare to Work

December 26, 1990

Welfare-to-work programs, politically popular since the 1980s, have had few critics. But now comes an eight-year Rockefeller Foundation study that questions the assumptions underpinning such programs. Its results prove that welfare recipients, often mothers raising children alone, can indeed be brought into the labor force. But it faults the widely used basic-skills approach, which often puts women into entry-level jobs, and points instead to a more work-intensive, craft- and technical-skills approach.

The Rockefeller study looked at four cities: Atlanta, Providence, R.I., Washington and San Jose, Calif. All but San Jose emphasized basic skills, much like Maryland's Project Independence and Project JOBS: remedial reading, language and math skills courses to help enrollees get General Equivalency Diplomas, then child-care services, medical assistance and counseling to move them into entry-level jobs. The Rockefeller study found that basic skills training made little real difference in recipients' lives. Indeed, 36 percent of the women in a San Jose control group got no training at all but found jobs anyway.

By contrast, 46 percent of the women in San Jose's job-oriented program were employed a year after enrolling, consultants found. Their pay scale was higher, too. Compared to average hourly wages of $5.39, San Jose's trainees were earning $6.11. One woman, thrown into training in a sheet-metal shop even though she had difficulty speaking English and had not completed elementary school in her native Mexico, was earning $9 an hour after three years.

What's different is that San Jose's program pushes job skills first -- carpentry, child care, microelectronics assembly, printing, typing, cooking and shipping and receiving -- and puts basic skills on a more leisurely schedule. Critics say Silicon Valley's economy skews the city's results, but every area has its own particular activities.

Maryland, which has 70,000 families collecting benefits from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, should examine the San Jose model, particularly since Gov. William Donald Schaefer has begun to push for a "quality work force." Employment and Economic Development Secretary J. Randall Evans told a national job trainers' conference of a new focus on "targeted" training for specific industries -- banking, legal, insurance and health-care in Baltimore, electronics in Montgomery County, etc.

That should work well in conjunction with the San Jose approach, and it would answer the complaint that the jobs current welfare trainees can get don't pay them enough to afford the day care they need to go to work, or to feed the families they must support.

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