Where welfare reform works

Success: Experts point to a county in Colorado as having one of the best programs in the country.

July 18, 1999|By Genevieve Anton

COLORADO Springs, Colo. -- At first glance, it might appear welfare reform in El Paso County has fallen short.

While the state's total welfare roll has dropped by 46 percent during the past two years, El Paso County's caseload is down 26 percent. But that number doesn't tell the whole story.

In fact, welfare experts across the country have singled out the county as having one of the most compassionate and successful programs around.

"El Paso County is very much out in front on welfare reform," said Ed LaPedis of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "In so many instances, other places are focused on removing people from welfare, but that's only half the job.

"In El Paso, their goal is to strengthen families for the long haul. They're doing that in very innovative ways that we hold in high regard."

The National Center for Children in Poverty will issue a report next month that trumpets El Paso County as one of 11 examples nationwide of how communities are meeting the needs of families under welfare reform.

"We think it's the most creative, sophisticated and child-friendly implementation of welfare reform we have seen around the country," said Jane Knitzer, deputy director of the nonprofit organization at the School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City.

"The very fact this conservative community, which I'm sure is cautious about how it spends its money, took this road and found it pays off is really very significant for the rest of the country."

Indeed, El Paso County has surprised critics who predicted that -- based on its conservative reputation and insistence on letting counties control welfare reform -- it would push people off too soon.

"When we were drafting the Colorado Works program in 1997, a lot of people clearly didn't trust El Paso County," said state Treasurer Mike Coffman, who sponsored the bill. "They thought the county would lack compassion, but that certainly hasn't been the case."

El Paso County's priority has been the elimination of poverty -- not reduction of the caseload -- and it has an extremely low punishment rate against recipients.

Still, the county has managed to meet stringent federal work requirements. An average of 81 percent of two-parent families and 37 percent of single parents on its welfare rolls are involved in work, school or job training.

That track record is better than any large county in the state except Douglas, whose caseload of 46 is 2 percent of the 2,367 welfare recipients in El Paso, state records say.

Even one of the toughest welfare skeptics in the state, Buffy Boesen of All Families Deserve a Chance Coalition, said the county has been a "pleasant surprise."

"I don't want to make them sound like pansies," she said. "They're tough, and they expect people to work for what they get. But they're investing in people, and that's good."

Irene Montoya is a mother of three who has been on and off welfare since 1992. She has worked low-skill, minimum-wage jobs.

Now she's acquiring clerical skills in an El Paso County job-training program.

"It used to be you were just a case number -- as long as you did the paperwork, you got your check," Montoya said. "Now they're looking out for us. They want to help you build your self-esteem, work out your problems, learn to do something with your life."

Of course, what works in El Paso County, which is predominantly white with a strong economy, won't necessarily work in Detroit or New York City. Little generational welfare exists here, no staggering workload or a lot of hard-core cases.

However, enough other communities are interested that Director David Berns and Deputy Director Barbara Drake spend much of their time on the road.

In the past eight months, more than two dozen groups -- including the National Governors' Association, the Child Welfare League of America and local and state welfare officials -- have paid them to share the secret of success.

Berns begins with the county's philosophy toward welfare reform:

Listen to people to find out what they need.

Help them design and buy into their own plan to become independent.

Strengthen the family by dealing with domestic violence, poor parental skills, drug or alcohol abuse, and physical or mental health problems.

Above all, get the entire community involved.

"People would sit there and yawn -- until I got to the end," Berns said. "Then they would sit up and say, 'Wow, I wish I had listened a little closer.' So now I start with the end. It's the results that really impress people."

Berns has more than just slogans: "We have the numbers to back it up."

El Paso County has kept 40 percent of the poor who walk in the door off welfare by helping them get on their feet. It has used welfare programs to help reduce foster care by 20 percent. It also has put more than 700 people in jobs with an average salary of $7.23 an hour, most with benefits.

The diversion program is one of the most aggressive in Colorado.

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