New forces pitch in to help welfare reform work

September 22, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

WELFARE REFORM, the issue that ignited a bitter American social quarrel, is fast turning into a proving ground for new forms of governance for the 21st century.

The old welfare model was top-down and rigid. Washington decreed to states, states to localities. Some states did wangle federal waivers; private industry councils helped some recipients. But mostly, welfare in America focused on rules -- dotting i's, crossing t's and catching cheats.

The 1996 reform act turned the system on its head. It delegated radically broadened powers to the states. It focused strongly on getting welfare recipients into jobs. In place of command and control, we're getting complex, overlapping networks of effort that cross multiple boundaries, inside and outside government.

Involvement of top business leaders may be the most dramatic shift. From Cleveland and Richmond to Seattle and San Francisco, regional chambers of commerce -- the organizations of the business heavies -- are inaugurating training and apprentice operations and setting ambitious goals on how many welfare workers should be switched to permanent jobs by what dates.

In Richmond, once bitterly divided along black-white, city-suburban lines, the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce is now the lead welfare-to-work agency for social-service departments in the city and three counties. The goal: to find jobs for 1,700 public aid recipients by next June.

When it comes to getting serious attention of potential employers and then landing people in real jobs, top business has unparalleled credibility, well ahead of private contractors or placement services, Richmond leaders told Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post.

A regional focus makes eminent sense because jobless welfare recipients are heavily focused in center cities and older suburbs, while most entry-level jobs are in suburban growth areas. Indeed, there would be no way to find enough jobs within old city boundaries.

But how to get the workers to the jobs? In Cleveland, a Case Western Reserve University survey showed that the low-income city residents can reach only 8 to 15 percent of entry-level jobs within 37 minutes, 39 to 44 percent within 80 minutes.

So the Federal Transportation Administration has suddenly become serious about welfare. Its officials are touring the country with a wake-up call to state governments and localities. It's time, they are saying, to ratchet up efforts to get the working poor to jobs. Why, for example, can't agencies with vans for social services and school busing sit down with employers and plot out connections?

The state of Michigan is pushing local transit feeder services, using GIS (geographical information system) data, to get the job-needy from home or work to public transit lines. New Jersey's data, provided by the state Human Services Department, maps locations of welfare recipients, employers and child-care providers.

''Welfare to work is not an issue of charity, it is an issue of economic development,'' Blair Farlow of St. Louis' East-West Gateway Coordinating told The Public Innovator newsletter.

Regional job creation

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has plunged into the issue of regional jobs creation with grants for projects in St. Louis, Seattle and four other city areas. The goal is to create jobs for inner-city people through new connections -- in Seattle, for example, by direct contacts with lead employers in construction, health care, trucking and information technology.

And on an interstate basis, there's a Midwest Welfare Peer Assistance Network, sparked by the Joyce Foundation of Chicago. Welfare officials and policy researchers from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin have been meeting to figure out how to change the culture of welfare agencies, and to fashion solid indicators of welfare-to-work progress.

They are talking specifically about ''replacing the vertical, top-down communication that characterized welfare in the old days with the horizontal communication necessary today,'' says Tom Corbett, a project coordinator.

State legislatures this year have proved to be remarkably generous in funding transportation, health care and day-care services that welfare recipients need to get into full-time, full-pay work. Relatively flush state budgets have made that easier. And more and more legislators who used to castigate welfare recipients now seem interested in support systems to help people make the transition.

There are perils: the chance of big state cutbacks in a recession, plus reduced successes when it comes to placing clients with serious drug or psychological problems.

But with so many new players from so many sectors starting to pitch in, there's at least ''a glimmering of hope we won't have welfare poor anymore, just working poor,'' says Anna Kondratas of the Urban Institute, one of the nation's most respected welfare analysts.

''We may be on the verge of a new paradigm of governance,'' suggests Ms. Kondratas -- ''if something unexpected doesn't pull us up short.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column about cities.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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