Administration Eyes Renewed Push On Job Placement in Welfare Plan
In Chicago, near the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project, a small nonprofit agency is doing exactly what President Clinton hopes his upcoming welfare-reform proposal will do: move people off welfare and into work.
That has made the group, Project Match, a curiosity in Washington policy circles, studied and celebrated like a miracle drug.
Project Match's success is due not to miracles but to customized job counseling and a shoe-leather approach to finding jobs for clients, said Toby Herr, the director of the program.
"We need to bring the jobs to the people,'' Ms. Herr explained.
That is a lesson that Clinton Administration officials assembling the President's welfare-reform legislation seem to have taken to heart. They have lavished praise on Project Match and other welfare-to-work programs while suggesting that welfare support must focus more on jobs.
"For many welfare recipients and others with education and skills deficiencies, the traditional education system has failed them in some ways,'' Mary Jo Bane, the Health and Human Services Department's assistant secretary for children and families and one of the chief architects of the Administration's plan, said in Congressional testimony last month.
Such rhetoric signals the Administration's intention to shift the direction of federal efforts, which have in recent years focused on federally managed education and training programs.
That change could have consequences for proprietary schools, community colleges, and vocational-education programs that would have to compete for federal dollars with groups such as Project Match.
The Pendulum Swings
Education and training have not always been viewed as the primary ingredient of plans to help people get off welfare. But after job-placement programs yielded marginal results in the 1980's, lawmakers and welfare administrators changed course with the 1988 Family Support Act and the creation of the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program, known as JOBS.
By 1992, more than half of JOBS participants each month were involved in some form of education or training activity, according to Mark Greenberg, a senior staff lawyer with the Center for Law and Social Policy.
Preliminary studies of JOBS programs in California and Florida suggest that the strategy paid off.
"Everywhere we look, JOBS on average is making a difference [for welfare recipients] in terms of earnings, subsequent employment, and reducing benefits,'' said Judith Gueron, the president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which conducted the studies and is working on a national JOBS evaluation.
However, job placement and development accounted for less than 4 percent of JOBS spending in 1992, according to Mr. Greenberg. That is troubling for President Clinton, who wants to move welfare recipients into jobs within two years.
"If the ultimate goal is employment, programs ultimately must have stronger job placement and development,'' Mr. Greenberg said.
America Works, a for-profit venture based in New York City that runs programs in a number of states, and Cleveland Works could serve as models. Both have moved thousands of people off welfare in recent years, and boast that about 85 percent of their clients are still working either six months or a year later.
Both rate work experience as more critical than education for clients. America Works recruits typically are given five weeks of instruction in clerical and computer skills, mathematics and grammar, and workplace attitudes and behavior. The more than 400 hours of work-preparation training provided by the nonprofit Cleveland Works, which serves clients in that Ohio city, also includes skills training in fields where the agency finds there are jobs.
Neither group makes general education a primary focus.
"No one loses a job if they forget two plus two equals four,'' said David Roth, the founder and executive director of Cleveland Works. "But you'll lose your job if you cop an attitude or show up late.''
"There's been much too much emphasis on long-term training and education,'' argued Lee Bowes, the chief executive officer of America Works. "Our philosophy is get people working and then let them opt for some tuition reimbursements for continuing education.''
At Project Match in Chicago, where job counselors build customized career plans for clients, Ms. Herr said that education is seen as a key rung for those climbing out of welfare. But the program cannot march every recipient lockstep into the classroom, she said.
For many clients, it is only "after they were able to succeed in the job that they could see on a gut level the connection between work and school,'' Ms. Herr said.
Project Match clients go out on job interviews almost immediately. About two in three lose their first jobs within six months, but the agency is renowned for its follow-up. It will help clients get two, three, or four jobs if necessary.
"Project Match does a great job sticking with people over the long haul,'' Ms. Bane of the Health and Human Services Department said.
Striking a Balance
Other champions of private-sector welfare-to-work programs include Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat; Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City, a Republican; and the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Some boosters argue that these programs should be allowed to bid for government funding earmarked for placing welfare recipients in permanent jobs.
"We have to have other [nongovernmental] actors in the business of moving people from welfare to private-sector work,'' said Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Clinton Administration.
But others caution that assessing the cost and benefits of using such contractors could prove tricky. Both America Works and Cleveland Works, for example, charge localities more than $5,000 for each welfare recipient they place in a job.
And some critics argue that their lengthy training "creams'' the welfare population, leaving them with only the most motivated clients to place.
Some also warn that too heavy an emphasis on work could plunge welfare back to the job-placement programs that experts deemed a failure in the 1980's.
"We know what happens when you focus on helping people find jobs,'' said Dan Bloom, an employment and training analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in Washington. "There's no reason to think that if you try it again, 10 years later or five years later, that it's going to be a lot different.''
Administration officials say they are aiming to strike a balance between work and education as they increase the federal emphasis on employment, rather than pushing the pendulum all the way in that direction.
"The question of whether a work-focused program or education and training will make a greater difference--in the long run and for whom--is still an open question,'' Ms. Gueron of the M.D.R.C. said.