Welfare-to-work challenge grows in North Carolina Marriott program touted as national model, runs into disappointment

May 14, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. - The Marriott hotel chain runs America's biggest corporate welfare-to-work program, and many consider it America's best. It has been profiled on CBS, ABC, and CNN, as well as in Business Week, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. President Clinton has hailed it as a national model.

So hopes were high when Marriott brought its Pathways to Independence program here last summer. It seemed like the ideal public-private partnership, helping women move from government checks to Marriott jobs. This, after all, was what Clinton meant when he urged the private sector to make welfare overhaul work.

But this time, the Marriott path to self-sufficiency led only to disappointment. A pool of 22 applicants in June was whittled down to four Pathways graduates by August. By December, Marriott had fired all four of those graduates; its five-figure investment had produced zero employees. If this is a national model, local officials say, then the nation has a problem.

'Going to get a lot harder'

"The scary thing is, Marriott selected these women. They were supposed to be the best of the best of the folks still on welfare," said Durham County welfare director Dan Hudgins. "It just shows that this is going to get a lot harder as we move further down the caseload. Some of these folks, I just don't know how we're going to move them into permanent jobs."

In North Carolina and nationwide, welfare rolls have dropped by a third since 1993, thanks partly to welfare overhauls and partly to the booming economy; early studies suggest that 50 to 60 percent of former recipients have found jobs.

But many specialists say that the easy work is done, that most of the single mothers who still depend on government largess have serious barriers to employment. Over half are high school dropouts, and a third have never held a job. Over half report a history of domestic abuse, and over a fourth say they are depressed. Many of them are nearing their two-year limit on benefits, and need to find a job soon.

Pathways to Independence has compiled an impressive record nationwide over the past eight years, moving more than 800 welfare recipients into entry-level jobs in 16 cities, with a 90 percent retention rate after three months and 65 percent after one year. Marriott is now accelerating the six-week training program, with classes in session in 11 more cities, and plans in place for classes in 13 others, including Boston and Springfield. This is supposed to reflect Marriott's philosophy of doing good while doing well, helping the community while helping the bottom line.

What went wrong?

So what went wrong in the Triangle? The immediate problem for several graduates was apparently transportation; none had cars, and all had trouble getting to work on time. Marriott managers also blame a lack of support by welfare officials, while the welfare officials blame a lack of commitment from Marriott managers.

But everyone seems to agree that even in a region with a severe labor shortage, moving welfare mothers into the permanent workforce is a severe challenge. The national attitude toward overhaul has been Work First - that is the actual name of North Carolina's welfare program - but there is a growing consensus that long-term recipients will need more intensive help before employers will want to hire them.

Last year, Marriott tried to cater a Pathways program in Washington to homeless welfare recipients, then abandoned the experiment after concluding the trainees needed more counseling and support than the company could give them. They simply had too many problems: with child care, domestic abuse, health care, transportation, alcoholism, and more.

"If it was just a matter of giving them a job, they wouldn't be on welfare in the first place," said Janet Tully, who oversees the Pathways program for Marriott. "Most of the women who are still on welfare have some incredibly serious challenges in their lives. Drug problems. No job skills. Low self-esteem. You can't just wave a magic wand and make them independent."

Durham County officials never expected a magic wand, but they did see Pathways as a neat fix to a political mess. The county had been relying on long-term training and even college work to prepare recipients for the Triangle's high-tech labor market, and while some women found excellent jobs, the county's caseload reductions lagged well behind the state's. "We were under heavy pressure," Hudgins recalls. "Pathways seemed like a godsend."

The state agreed to pay Marriott $2,600 per participant, about half the cost of the program, and Marriott agreed to provide 180 hours of training. Two-thirds of it was on-the-job training, following around Marriott employees at work. The other third was classroom training in general skills like punctuality, grooming, money management, customer service, and conflict resolution.

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