A regional approach to Va.'s welfare reform Some 500 former welfare recipients have completed the program and are employed.

November 09, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

RICHMOND, Va. -- Why would a chamber of commerce grasp the sticky wicket of welfare reform? And not only preach change, but also contract to run the welfare system for a city and three suburban counties?

To create a good business climate, with skilled workers, improve schools and lower the crime rate, replies James W. Dunn, president of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce.

"There's nothing easy, nothing glamorous about the welfare reform job we've taken on. But if we can figure this out, use our business skills to transform welfare recipients into workers with sustainable incomes, we'll have a real competitive edge. We'll have elevated Richmond to be one of the most desirable regions of the 21st century."

No other U.S. chamber has been so ambitious on welfare reform. Richmond may have been more ready. Mr. Dunn had been working with such visionary local leaders as Robert Grey, a prominent lawyer and chamber chairman, to make the chamber the Richmond partner in a pioneering "Youth Matters" venture with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

When Virginia passed its tough welfare reform law in 1997, local corporate chiefs were interested in hiring welfare recipients -- indeed the booming economy of recent years was making job recruitment increasingly tough for them.

Corporate chiefs' input

But, said the executives, any package must include training in basic job skills, proper dress and use of English, plus day-care backup for mothers and transportation. And it must be regional to avoid bureaucratic chaos with every city and county trying to go it alone with training and employment services.

A breakthrough idea came from Dennis Galligan, president of Richmond's Interim Personnel: Why can't the chamber negotiate a master contract for the entire welfare-to-work process and then outsource it to his firm or another that might have the right training and job-placement skills?

The city and county social services departments jumped at the idea. While they said knew how to query clients, write checks and issue food stamps, but that they had no experience placing people in jobs.

Government being government, "requests for proposals" and competitive bids had to be considered. The chamber's GREAT (Greater Richmond Employment Assistance Team) came out on top.

It commissioned Mr. Galligan's firm to work out an intake/assessment plan with the city and each suburban county. And it hired Rita Ricks, an African-American "tough love" motivator, to put the would-be workers through a three-week course to get their dress, language and attitudes ready for the workplace and job success.

Helped along by the high job demand of a booming economy -- more than 300 firms are willing to take applicants and one has taken as many as 30 -- the system's off to a strong start. Corporations are happy to have a chamber-certified, single pool of workers they can turn to for jobs scattered across the region.

Hard numbers on the results are a bit elusive because many welfare recipients quickly found jobs or otherwise "disappeared" from the system under welfare reform. Many started the GREAT training course but found jobs before finishing. However, some 500 former welfare recipients have completed the program and are employed.

The peskiest problem has been transportation to suburban job sites. It has required renting (with assorted government grant funds) temporary vans. The chamber is considering a loan fund to help workers purchase their own cars.

It's true: Richmond hasn't figured out what to do with the very toughest welfare cases -- people with criminal or drug histories, psychological blocks or other incapacities. But no other community has either.

A regional leader

So why was Richmond's chamber willing to be a welfare leader? Richmond, after all, is a city that's never forgotten it was the capital of the Confederacy. Its fast-growing suburbs (Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties) have so disdained or feared the increasingly black inner city that they've stubbornly resisted, except in a narrow part of Chesterfield, allowing the public transit system to service their territory.

Mr. Grey, an African American, replied: The isolationism of the counties is crumbling as inner city-like problems -- older housing, lower-income pockets, crime, dying first-ring shopping malls -- spread to them.

Time-encrusted Richmond ways of exclusion, protecting the status quo, are crumbling as members of the old families, often to their surprise, see there's more gain in enlarging the entire economic pie.

Business leadership is recognizing that the old gimmicks -- low taxes, right-to-work laws -- are no competition in a global age for having a skilled population and high quality of life.

I listened and thought: A historic city, a challenged region, new business leadership and strikingly different ways of looking forward. The pieces are starting to fit together. If it works in Richmond, why not everywhere?

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 11/09/98

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