Welfare-to-work difficulties foster skepticism Administrators criticize recipients' job habits


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Deborah C. Washam shook her head with an emotion that appeared to be equal parts sorrow and exasperation.

Of the more than 80 women she has hired over the past 17 months as part of a generous welfare-to-work program sponsored in part by Kansas City's corporate community, fewer than 25 remain on the job. Many of the others quit in a huff over perceived slights -- Washam calls it their refusal to follow directions.

"I don't think they've had much exposure to structure in their lives," said Washam, president and chief executive of Community Home Health Care, a licensed agency that dispatches homemakers to assist elderly and disabled residents of Kansas City's urban core with light housework and shopping.

"As single mothers, they are on their own and think of themselves as authority figures," Washam said. "They won't take routine supervision at work."

President Clinton, in accepting the Democratic nomination Thursday, declared "a moral obligation" under the Welfare Reform Act he signed two weeks ago to move Americans off welfare and into jobs. But the magnitude of this task seems best appreciated by those already dealing with the challenge.

Overcoming years of dependency is daunting, those who administer welfare-to-work efforts say.

Employers express satisfaction with new employees who show initiative and a willingness to learn, even when that has required training in rudiments like the proper way to answer phones. But as the program here shows, business people are frustrated by many welfare veterans.

Many among those hired, while the most qualified of those screened, have problems that include absenteeism, lack of discipline about work hours, poor reading skills, and resentment when given direction. And current programs have not even reached people on welfare who have more serious problems, such as alcohol and drug abuse.

These concerns echo nationally among business leaders, who are only beginning to figure out employers' roles as the states begin a trek this fall into uncharted territory under mandates that those on welfare must find work or face the loss of benefits for themselves and their children.

"In the view of the small-business person, welfare is right up there with balancing the budget as what's wrong with big government," said Jeffrey R. Joseph, vice president for domestic policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Yet the average business person -- or the average politician, for that matter -- has no clue as to what's coming now that the welfare bill has been passed. They want welfare people to go out and work, but there's a big difference between visceral reactions and actually dealing with programs that can help lead them to work."

Joseph said a "hodgepodge" of plans had been advanced to ease the welfare-to-work transition.

"[Areas] with low unemployment are serious about finding reasonable ways of accomplishing the goals of reform -- they need every worker they can get," he said. "Areas with high unemployment and low sophistication, where they can't figure out what to do with people who already have skills, may be less interested."

Clinton challenged "every business person in America who has ever complained about the failure of the welfare system to try to hire somebody off welfare, and try hard." Yet some business leaders disavow any suggestion that the private sector should assume responsibility for welfare reform.

"Business is not in the business of providing jobs for welfare recipients," Robert T. Jones, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance of Business, said in a telephone interview before the president's speech, contending that it is up to the states to prepare people for entering the work force.

Still, some communities -- notably places where unemployment is low and unskilled workers are in demand -- have already undertaken efforts to move welfare recipients into the work force.

In Tulsa, Okla., for example, the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce created a nonprofit corporation in 1992 to train adults on welfare for assembly and manufacturing jobs at companies that pick up the training costs.

Tim Westberry, the program manager, said that in the first eight months of 1996, 60 full-time and 13 temporary jobs were filled by the heads of families on Aid to Families with Dependent Children who underwent training. The overall retention rate, he said, is above 80 percent over the history of the program.

In Kansas City, an alliance called the Local Investment Commission (LINC), financed by public and private sources, is shaping a model of inner-city dynamics for the post-welfare world.

Backed by corporate leadership groups and foundation funding, the alliance is striving to change the focus of the existing social-service apparatus from assisting people in getting welfare benefits to finding them jobs, among other far-reaching plans.

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