Creative ways to help the least employable Welfare reform: Federal grants are innovative step to move the toughest cases toward independence.

November 27, 1998

TOO OFTEN the federal government stifles creativity rather than rewarding it. That's especially true when it comes to addressing tough challenges like welfare reform.

But the Department of Labor is taking a new tack. In a much-needed effort to stimulate innovation, it has awarded $273 million in grants to states, cities and community groups willing to take on some of the toughest problems plaguing the nation's welfare reform efforts.

Federal officials describe the money as venture capital invested in social reform. They hope the grants will identify ways to help the hardest-to-employ welfare recipients find and keep jobs.

In the two years since the government passed welfare reform legislation, caseloads have dropped 37 percent nationally and 41 percent in Maryland. But those numbers mask the fact that the people remaining on welfare rolls present the toughest challenges. And government threats and sanctions do little to bring down the underlying hurdles faced by a population with alcohol and drug problems, limited work skills, limited education or day-care worries.

That's where creative experimentation plays a role. Baltimore's Office of Employment Development, for instance, is receiving $3.3 million to establish a comprehensive job search center in the Gilmor Homes public housing community. The goal? To "saturate" help upon welfare recipients with poor work histories and educational skills through comprehensive training, subsidized internships and, finally, paying jobs.

Similarly, as the recipient of a $6.6 million federal grant, Sylvan Learning Systems will provide basic skills and job training to welfare recipients in Prince George's County, Los Angeles and Baltimore, where it is partners with the Baltimore Urban League.

The strategy is risky. After all, these programs pick up where other welfare reform efforts have ended unsuccessfully. Yet if more creative solutions succeed, the payoff will be great -- for us all.

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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