LaVerne Wright knows just how addictive soap operas can be. During the seven years she was on welfare, she spent most afternoons glued to the television for her daily fix.
Six months ago, the 25-year-old mother of three quit cold turkey. Now, instead of spending her days following "The Young and the Restless," she is busy working as a secretary at the Department of Housing and Community Development in Annapolis.
"I felt it was time for me to get off my butt," Wright said. "I wanted to make something positive out of myself. I didn't want to just sit at home and get fat watching them soap operas."
FOR THE RECORD - Due to a reporting error, statistics on Project Independence in the Sunday edition of The Anne Arundel County Sun were incorrect. Of 584 county participants in 1989-90, 219 graduated and 137 found jobs. Of the graduating class, 63 percent found jobs.
Of the state's 13,689participants, 2,891 graduated and 2,236 were placed. Of the graduating class, 77 percent found jobs.
Many of the rest still are in the program, Project Independence officials said.
In addition, a graduate who was identified as working at the Department of Housing and Community Development no longer works there. LaVerne Wright now works for the Planning Action Committee.
The Anne Arundel County Sun regrets the errors.
Her success story is the kind that leaders of Project Independence, Maryland's touted welfare-to-work program, like to tell. Wright represents the goal of the $19 million jobs-training program, designed to free more than 13,000 welfare recipients from relying on the public dole this year.
But just how well Project Independence works is somewhat unclear. Despite individual triumphs like Wright's, more participants dropped out than found jobs during the first 1 years of the program. At the same time, the state's welfare caseload continued to grow, spurred largelyby the slumping economy.
Some critics charge the program concentrates too much on quick fixes. Project Independence, they complain, isgeared toward placing people in entry-level jobs that pay only slightly more than minimum wage, rather than training them for careers that could last a lifetime.
State officials are expected to argue theprogram's benefits Wednesday before the House Appropriations Committee. The 20-member panel will look at participation and "how many people are actually being taken off the welfare rolls," said Richard Madalino, a legislative budget analyst.
Since the state expanded its limited, voluntary version of the program with federal money in July 1989, participation has been mandatory for most healthy adults. Welfare recipients who have children under age 3, work at least 30 hours a week, are pregnant or live more than two hours from training sites are exempt. All others risk losing part of their benefits if they refuse to participate.
The main target group, under federal welfare reform guidelines, includes teen mothers, parents of children over age 5and long-term recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children.More than 96 percent are women, usually single parents with few marketable job skills.
"We are trying to help these women get out of the cycle of dependency," said Dorothy McGuinness, director of the Anne Arundel Office of Manpower, which runs the county's program. "If this thing succeeds, it will really change the face of the welfare system."
Wright was among 137 people who graduated with jobs during the first year of Anne Arundel's Project Independence. Another 219 of the 584 who participated from July 1989 through September 1990 droppedout -- leaving the county with a 23.5 percent job-placement rate, only slightly higher than the state average of 16 percent.
Project Independence officials are quick to point out the statistics are misleading because many participants needed more remedial education and job training. They still were in training or hunting for a job when thefirst fiscal year ended, said Deanna Phelps, director of the programfor Maryland.
"The people who are coming in for these services don't just need a quickie job service," she said.
But the placement rate is one concern raised by some government officials and advocatesfor the poor, who question the program's overall effectiveness.
"I think we all probably had hoped that more could be placed," said Lynda Meade, vice president of Welfare Advocates, a statewide coalitionof more than 250 social services providers. "The reality is people came in with intense needs. A mother on welfare with two kids didn't get there overnight, and she's not going to get off overnight."
Anne Arundel's program, like those in most counties, is structured to move welfare recipients rapidly into the work force. The strategy leaves watchdog groups like Welfare Advocates wondering if the priority isjob training or simply weaning people off the welfare rolls, even ifonly temporarily.
Each month, social workers in the Glen Burnie and Annapolis offices of the Department of Social Services refer at least 60 welfare recipients to Project Independence. Not all show up, said Phyllis Crutchfield, an Independence counselor at the Glen Burnieoffice. Others drop out when they have problems with transportation or day care, she said.
After an orientation session, participants are sent to a two-week motivational course, known as life skills. "A lot of women walk into our program with a lot of hopelessness," training manager Pamela Neustadt said. "We help turn them around."