Miss. hopes WorkFirst ends welfare State pays companies to hire the poor

December 01, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

JACKSON, Miss. -- Welfare reform isn't good enough for Mississippi, which intends to settle for nothing less than a revolution. It is taking public assistance money away from mothers and passing it on to employers, who give the women jobs and turn welfare into wages.

"We've been telling poor people, 'We'll sit on the veranda with our straw hats and mint juleps, and we'll take care of you,' " says Donald R. Taylor, executive director of the state Department of Human Services. "Not anymore."

Now Mississippi tells the poor to accept any job offered, or lose all benefits. If employers hire a welfare recipient, the state will provide a subsidy of $3.50 an hour. The employers need add only $1 an hour to the wages.

The project, called WorkFirst, began a year ago with 25 percent of the welfare caseload. At the heart of the experiment is the conviction that most job-training programs are a failure and that the best training for a job is a job.

"Those programs have been driven by the federal government," Taylor says, "and success has been judged on the number of participants and not the outcomes. That's where we've missed the point."

The idea has plenty of critics, who speculate that state officials are naive about how many good jobs are available, or perhaps are just plain mean. It has also provoked widespread interest from other states, which are looking for inspiration as they struggle to develop their own reform plans.

The federal government has ordered the states to put half their welfare caseloads to work within six years and to impose a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. With that, after 60 years of running welfare, it withdrew and left reform in the hands of local politicians.

"Mississippi has had a large welfare population for a long time," says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard. "It has had among the lowest benefits. To hand it to the employers? That sounds like going back to the old system of sharecropping."

Closer to home, Rims Barber is angry. Barber, who has long fought for civil rights in Mississippi, says Gov. Kirk Fordice, a conservative Republican, simply wants to punish poor people.

The governor denies that and says he's coming up with a realistic solution to an intractable problem. Fordice says too many mothers are having too many children so they can collect welfare -- though Mississippi is hardly known for its largess. A mother and child receive $96 a month in Aid for Families with Dependent Children here, and a second child brings in $24, for a family total of $120 a month. In Maryland, by comparison, a mother and two children receive $373 a month.

"I think the governor thinks poor black women are having too much sex and enjoying it too much," says Barber, director of the Mississippi Human Services Agenda in Jackson. The governor, Barber likes to say, thinks the best job training is a good alarm clock.

That used to be true in America -- getting to work on time every day was the first rung on the ladder up. But times have changed, in Mississippi and America, and fewer entry-level jobs lead upward toward careers. With the loss of middle-income manufacturing jobs, more people, punctual or not, are stuck at the first rung.

'It's a lot better'

Medgar Evers Boulevard turns into U.S. 49 as it heads northwest out of Jackson, a road map to the economic upheavals of the last generation. The road undulates gently as it leaves behind the fast-food lights of Jackson and its low-paying but plentiful jobs in the service industry.

Vickie Christian, who lives just off the boulevard, is among 5,000 Mississippi welfare recipients who have been told to find jobs. If they refuse to cooperate by failing to look for jobs or to accept one, they are "sanctioned." They lose their checks.

Christian was eager to work and, after interviewing at a chicken factory and a Frito-Lay plant, took a job as a presser at a dry cleaning shop. She wanted to work because the state promised her Medicaid and child care and transportation subsidies for two years -- which would make working profitable, even at a low-wage job.

A 30-year-old mother of three children, ages 12, 8 and 6, she

lives in the Christian Brotherhood housing project.

"Before, I was only getting $144 a month, so I'm doing much better now," says Christian, who earns $5.50 an hour and works 32 to 40 hours a week. "It's a lot better getting out to work than just sitting around."

In two years, she'll have to pay for health insurance and child care out of a paycheck that often falls short of $220 a week. "I hope I get a raise by then," she says.

Sociologists predict she won't.

Kathryn Edin, a Rutgers University sociologist, says that women who have left welfare for work earn only tiny raises -- one study found raises of only $1 an hour after six years.

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