Easy to say, harder to do

December 08, 1996|By Sara Engram

WELFARE TO work. It's a sensible idea, but hardly simple to put into action.

Are there enough jobs available that pay enough to support a household? Are those jobs accessible to people who usually depend on public transportation?

Those questions are difficult enough, but they aren't the only problems confronting welfare-to-work efforts. What about the welfare recipients who simply aren't ready to hold a job?

Whether the problem is lack of transportation or unreliable child care or a disruptive relationship with a husband or boyfriend, many women will have trouble working because of the same kinds of problems that helped put them on welfare in the first place.

Raise red flags

Others will have complications that raise red flags for employers. Some may have health problems that cause them to miss too many days of work. Some will have a criminal record, especially if they have a history of drug abuse.

And if this is true for some mothers on welfare, it's a fact of life for large numbers of men in poor neighborhoods, many of whom are also out there looking for well-paying jobs as an alternative to the drug trade.

Duane Barksdale is only 25, but he is already the father of several children. A West Baltimore resident, he also has a history most employers shy away from, including a criminal record and involvement in drugs. But when his second son was born in April 1995, he decided he had to make a change.

''It's one thing to do that to myself,'' he says. ''It's another thing to do it to my kid.''

A rebel against sisters

Duane's own parents had tried their best, with both his mother and father working hard to provide him and his four sisters with the necessities of life. His sisters turned out well, he says. But he was the youngest, and he rebelled against his sisters' authority when his parents were away at work.

Duane has no high school diploma, but it's not as though he has no skills. He's proud of his salesmanship abilities, even if he is not proud of how he has made use of them too often in the past -- either selling drugs or looking for a high.

Can he find a way to support himself and his children apart from selling drugs? It won't be easy, but unless people like Duane are able to straighten themselves out, the neighborhoods where many welfare recipients live will continue to be plagued by drugs and violence -- a situation that only complicates efforts to help welfare recipients fit into a stable routine that is necessary for success in the workaday world.

There are thousands of young men like Duane in cities like Baltimore. Young, energetic, entrepreneurial, but burdened by the lack of formal education or self-discipline and, in too many cases, a criminal record, their prospects in the legitimate job market are poor.

Some of these problems also plague the women who are now nTC the targets of the government's new ''tough-love'' approach to long-term dependency. But these young mothers will have some advantages their male partners don't have, such as access to job-training programs and help in looking for a job.

Women like Pamela Foreman, 29, and Erica Flanagan, 25, face obstacles to work. But unlike so many men in their neighborhoods, they remain optimistic about making their way without government hand-outs and without relying on a fast buck from the drug trade. Asked how they will cope with long bus commutes or child-care complications, they have a simple answer: ''You do what you have to do.''

Up against the wall

Welfare reform will surely bring hardships to many families. But as a job counselor who works with many of these women points out, ''The best of us comes out when we're up against the wall.''

Talk to young adults in poor neighborhoods and it is clear that they have plenty of energy and initiative. Too often, as in Duane Barksdale's case, it has been channeled the wrong way.

Welfare reform -- breaking the cycle of dependency -- assumes that these energies can in fact be steered in healthier directions. That will be a lot easier if policy makers also pay attention to the problems poor men are facing in the job market, rather than focusing exclusively on the employment status of welfare women.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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