Welfare reform: keeping the job

Work: A program developed at Johns Hopkins takes over after a welfare recipient has found employment.

May 20, 2001|By Arnold Packer and Melissa Siberts

IN 1996, welfare reform sent millions of women rushing from the public assistance rolls to jobs in the private sector.

One groundbreaking piece of legislation, the Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act, ended welfare as we knew it. The old system, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, relied on indefinite cash assistance to the poor. That approach robbed welfare recipients of their dignity and independence and often sentenced them to a lifetime of poverty and hopelessness.

The new system, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, sets a time limit for cash assistance. Now welfare recipients face a maximum five-year lifetime limit on federal aid, and some states have imposed an even shorter limit -- Maryland's is two years. As a result, Maryland and other states have been forced to develop programs to help recipients make the transition from welfare to work.

Conservatives hailed the change as a "triumph over poverty," saying the old system was an assault on the work ethic and bred laziness and dependence. Liberals worried about what would happen to the millions of low-income families when the soaring economy slowed and entry-level workers were the first to be laid off.

We now face that economic slowdown, and the country will soon see if the "triumph over poverty" will hold in a softer labor market. At the same time, welfare limits for many recipients are running out. Before September 2002, Congress must reauthorize the welfare reform act and decide what changes, if any, should be made.

Fortunately, Congress has some excellent data to guide its decisions.

Since welfare reform was implemented, the number of recipients has dropped by almost half, but the poverty rate has not declined significantly. In fact, the number of children living in poverty has increased -- today nearly one in five American children are poor.

These numbers tell Congress and the president that while the reforms are making some progress in moving people from welfare to work, there is still a lot of work to be done in helping people move from poverty to self-sufficiency.

We have found some answers through the Career Transcript System, a welfare-to-work program developed at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies under a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

As the reauthorization discussion begins, we hope Congress will look to this program as one guide to what works.

The Career Transcript System, based at seven community colleges around the country, stands out from other welfare-to-work approaches and, we believe, has critical elements for the transition. About 1,000 new workers are currently in the program, which uses a different approach than others created to help welfare recipients move to private sector jobs.

Most programs focus on the person making the transition from welfare to work. They rarely involve job supervisors or focus on the workplace and the factors necessary to help these new hires become successful there. These programs offer pre-employment training, job search or resume writing. Once the person is placed in a job, though, little is done to help the person retain it.

The Career Transcript System is different. It begins working with the new hire after she is placed in a job, and involves her workplace supervisor and a "workplace liaison" who helps the supervisor and employee. The workplace liaison helps the new hire to develop skills in areas such as teamwork, responsibility, problem-solving and customer service.

The new hire, her supervisor and the workplace liaison develop a career ladder that will enable her to progress beyond the entry-level position. By focusing on the workplace and involving the supervisor, the Career Transcript System has a 68 percent job retention rate for participants who have remained in it for one year. This translates into long-term success -- the kind that moves families to lasting self-sufficiency.

Career Transcript System workers who have stayed on the job for a year have averaged pay increases of a dollar per hour. They are getting promotions. And a transcript of their work skills is available online to potential employers. This enables one of our clients, for example, to show a potential employer that she has 80 percent competency in teamwork. The employer, on the other hand, can assess our client with greater confidence that she possesses the skills to succeed.

One of the chief reasons former welfare recipients are terminated from new jobs is a failure to understand workplace etiquette. Responsibility in the workplace means getting to work every day on time, dressing properly and communicating professionally.

Most of our jobs are located in the day care, health care and hospitality fields, where turnover rates for entry-level jobs average 50 percent, and in the restaurant industry, where turnover soars up to 400 percent in some areas.

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