Training enables some to get off welfare rolls

February 07, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Sun Staff Writer

Beyond the rhetoric, the red tape, the government acronyms and the public debate over welfare are people like Debbie Force.

Four generations of her family have been or are on welfare.

Ms. Force, her mother and her grandmother have been on the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, the public subsidy that accounts for about 70 percent of welfare payments nationally. Two of her daughters now receive AFDC.

Ms. Force, 38, is no longer receiving welfare. In fact, she's making $20,000 a year plus benefits, and she's earning it.

"Now I'm hoping to get my daughters off AFDC the same way I got off," she says.

Project Independence, which trains welfare recipients for the work force and teaches them how to get jobs, helped Ms. Force get off welfare. Now, the soft-spoken woman inputs data for the Baltimore County Office of Employment and Training.

The name Project Independence is Maryland's phrase for a national program that springs from Job Opportunity and Basic Skills, an offshoot of Title II of the Family Support Act Congress passed in 1988.

JOBS mandates that anyone who receives AFDC and has a child 3 years old or older must join the program or face a cut of up to $125 a month in benefits. There are exceptions, mainly for health reasons, age or pregnancy.

Baltimore County has about 7,000 AFDC cases involving more )) than 18,000 mothers and their children. Cost to the taxpayer is an average $358 a month per case, plus food stamps, medical assistance and rent supplements for some.

The county's Project Independence has an annual budget of $1.3 million, paid for through federal and state grants. Trainees get lunch and transportation money, but no wages. They remain on AFDC until they get a job.

John Wasilisin, administrator of the county Office of Employmenand Training, which operates the program, said he believes Project Independence will be the model for President Clinton's welfare program.

In his State of the Union speech last month, Mr. Clinton said he would offer Congress a comprehensive welfare reform bill that "restores the basic values of work and responsibility."

He is expected to ask for a two-year limit on welfare aid and insist that recipients prepare themselves for the work force. Project Independence's limit is not as precise as Mr. Clinton's, but the mandate is the same: work or else.

Training called costly

Insiders say it won't be that easy.

"Training programs are labor-intensive and costly," Mr. Wasilisin said. "Some people believe it would be much cheaper to continue the system as it is, because the alternatives are so expensive."

However, a study prepared by the state Department of Human Resources claims the state got a 161 percent return on its investment for the fiscal years 1991 and 1992.

The study showed a total cost to the state of $14.8 million for management and child care, and $39.3 million in AFDC payments that did not have to be made because Project Independence had gotten people off the welfare rolls.

It also said that 72 percent of those employed through Project Independence were still on the job six months later and that more than 9,000 have gotten employment statewide through the program between July 1989 and June 1993.

Project Independence in Baltimore County employs about 25 people full time -- mostly teachers, job search assistants and counselors -- and others who spend part of their time in the program. The main training centers are at Catonsville Community College and at a center in Essex jointly operated by Dundalk and Essex community colleges. The program's phone number is 877-4473.

The training period is from six months to a year, depending on the person's basic skills. Ms. Force spent a year with Project Independence before getting her job.

Beginning with basics

Most job placements are entry level and clerically oriented. Recent placements include a mail courier at $7 an hour, data entry clerk at $7.65 an hour, administrative assistant at $8 an hour and addiction counselor at $11.08 an hour.

The average hourly wage for job placements is $6.03.

About 40 percent of trainees have no high school diploma and receive instruction in reading and other basic skills.

"They generally have a reading level below seventh grade," Mr. Wasilisin said.

Those with work experience can skip that phase and receive training in areas where testing and background assessments indicate they would do well.

The program also includes job search workshops, instruction on resume preparation and sessions on how to handle an interview, along with an emphasis on motivating participants and building their self-esteem.

"The program has helped a lot of people who had given up," said Mr. Wasilisin. "It's changing people's lives."

On the other hand, some recipients want no part of it.

"OK, they say, cut my benefits," Mr. Wasilisin said.

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