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Poor Attendance Identified as Barrier To Bolstering Welfare Recipients' Skills

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Poor program attendance has been a significant barrier to bolstering the educational skills of welfare recipients under the federal welfare-reform law, a five-state study released last week concludes.

The report by the Manpower Development Research Corporation notes that the Family Support Act of 1988 placed a "substantial emphasis'' on education as a pathway out of poverty for welfare clients.

The Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training program created incentives for states to provide or expand educational services for people on welfare while stressing their "reciprocal obligation'' to participate.

The M.D.R.C. study highlights issues faced by programs in five states--California, Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin--as they launched or expanded welfare-related education programs. It is based on interviews with state and local welfare and education officials conducted in 1989 and 1990 and updated in 1991 and 1992.

The study found that "education and welfare agencies in all five states are making major efforts to provide education,'' said Edward Pauly, the report's principal author and a senior researcher at the M.D.R.C. But he noted that poor attendance has been a major barrier.

The local welfare and education officials interviewed "agreed that attendance problems have been a greater source of strain on their ability to serve welfare recipients than they had anticipated,'' the report says.

While observing that many adult-education programs serving nonwelfare populations also face attendance problems, the authors speculate that adults required to attend school as a condition of their welfare grants may not have overcome "longstanding problems with child care, transportation, housing, and health and family crises'' or reluctance based on their own negative school experiences.

Attendance problems that plagued teenage dropouts when they were in school are "likely to follow'' them in êïâó programs, the report adds.

"If welfare/education programs are to succeed, they must develop effective responses to their students' attendance problems,'' it states.

Mr. Pauly said states recognize the problem and are trying "creative solutions,'' such as better recordkeeping, monitoring, and follow-up when students are absent and "performance contracts'' linking payments for adult-education services to the number of students who complete the educational program.

The report cites various efforts the five states have undertaken to link more closely the welfare and education systems, such as admitting êïâó participants to education and dropout-recovery programs designed for other populations and providing case management and other services for welfare clients.

But some educational institutions have been reluctant to alter existing programs to meet the needs of the welfare population, the report says, and state education agencies have not accorded such programs the same priority as state welfare agencies have. The report also cites a "lack of consensus and clarity of goals'' on whether programs should focus on job preparation, educational credentials, or daily-living skills.

The study also highlighted "a clear need to link the education being provided to employment,'' Mr. Pauly said, by making it more job-relevant and teaching job-search skills.

Such issues, the report says, can be resolved through ongoing negotiations between state and local education and welfare agencies to learn about each others' roles and devise strategies that benefit both sectors.

Copies of "Linking Welfare and Education,'' the first in a series of "Papers for Practitioners,'' are available for $8 each from the M.D.R.C., 3 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016-5988.

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