Illiteracy Stymied Project Independence, Chief Says


January 31, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Tracy Punte wanted to go to Annapolis yesterday to tell Project Independence leaders about her problems with the program. But to get there, she needed to hike 1 miles, carrying her 5-month-old son, to reach the nearest bus stop in Glen Burnie.

The same trouble with transportation has prevented the 19-year-old high school dropout from participating in Project Independence, Maryland's welfare-to-work training effort.

As a teen mother, Punte belongs to one of the program's main target groups. Project Independence is required by federal law to spend 55 percent of its $19 million state budget on teen parents and long-term welfare recipients. Those people risk losing part of their benefits if they fail to participate, said Audrey S. Thies, executive director of the state Office of Employment and Training.

"Those are the groups least likely to come off welfare," she told the House Appropriations Committee yesterday.

Asked to outline Project Independence's performance, Thies described its early successes, including enrolling 13,000 people in the first year and placing 77 percent of the 2,891 who graduated or left the program.

Project Independence officials initially hoped to have 4,000 graduates by last June, she acknowledged. But many required longer-term remedial education. Even the 40 percent of participants who were high school graduates often could onlyread at a fifth-grade level, she said.

"We invested a tremendous amount of time on literacy training and basic skills," she told the panel. As a result, she added, the program costs were "considerably higher than planned."

Because 10,789 of the participants still were in training when the first year ended, Project Independence leaders predict a higher graduation rate this year. At least

6,000 of this year's 14,427 participants are expected to finish the program. The remaining 8,427 will be carried over again, including several thousand who first enrolled in 1989-1990.

Program leaders want to concentrateon lifelong learning programs this year, Thies said, to help participants train for more than just entry-level jobs. In response to questions from delegates, she said her group also plans to seek improvements by studying similar welfare-to-work programs in other states.

The emphasis on short-term training to move welfare recipients quicklyinto the work force has drawn criticism from some government officials and advocates for the poor.

Speaking of Anne Arundel's 13-week training programs, one high-ranking county official called Project Independence "as much a public relations notion as a public entity."

"There's been a real push for quick results," said the official, whoasked not to be identified. "The problem with training people for entry-level jobs, especially in the service sector, is that they're usually the first to go when the economy weakens."

Annapolis AldermanCarl O. Snowden, a longtime civil rights activist, agreed that longer-term education and job training are crucial. With today's technological advances, he said, many entry-level clerical jobs will be outdated by the next century.

Both statewide and locally, the majority of program graduates have found jobs as office clerks, secretaries or data-entry typists. Anne Arundel provides training in construction, building maintenance and day-care or nursing assistance. People with prior work experience, usually clerical, can sign up for a refresher course.

Tracy Punte said the program selection left her cold. When told to join Project Independence in October, she already was studying for

her diploma through the Maryland External High School Program, selling Avon and planning to enroll in community college. After she explained that she couldn't get to the two-week motivational class, known as life skills, because she doesn't have a car and works part-time as a baby-sitter, her counselor "literally told me that was my problem," Punte said.

Unable to find either accessible transportation or day care for her son, Punte pleaded to be exempted. Since the program is mandatory for most healthy adults, especially teen mothers, her monthly welfare check was cut from $317 to $179.

When told of Punte's problems after yesterday's hearing, Thies jotted down her name and promised to check into the situation. Saying she recognized some welfare recipients have fallen through the cracks, Thies added she hopes to fine-tune the program in the next year.

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