'Workfare' Applicants Said To Lack Skills

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When officials in the California Social Services Department analyzed recent basic-skills test scores of welfare recipients seeking to enter the state's new "workfare'' program, they got an unpleasant surprise.

Of the 6,000 applicants tested, nearly 60 percent required at least some remedial instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics before they could hope to qualify for all but the most menial and low-paying jobs.

For one out of every three applicants, the scores indicated, at least six months of basic education, often at the elementary-school level, would be needed to reach even a minimal level of employability.

The results--collected as part of a still-experimental program called GAIN, Greater Avenues for Independence--underscore the formidable challenge faced by the current welfare-reform drive.

While several of the proposals to revamp welfare programs at the federal and state levels include education components, many are predicated on the assumption that aid recipients would have at least the basic education required to retain a job.

If such an assumption is not valid, experts maintain, then cost estimates for the welfare-program proposals currently being debated could be much lower than the actual price tag is likely to be.

"The fact is that here in California we have been living in something of a fool's paradise,'' said Carl Williams, the social-services department's deputy director. "We really haven't recognized the depth of the problem when it comes to education.''

According to Mr. Williams, the state's welfare officials have generally assumed that the average aid recipient has between 10 and 12 years of formal education.

But the test scores, he said, indicate that grade completion often has little or no relationship to basic competency.

"We were rather surprised to find out how bad off a lot of these people are,'' he said. "We are finding people who made it up into the high-school grades but are not competent in 6th-grade reading and math skills.''

These results, Mr. Williams argued, are a graphic reminder of public educational systems' historic failure to serve millions of low-income and disadvantaged students.

"I resent doing cleanup,'' he said. "I resent having to go to the legislature and ask them for the money to do what is essentially the job of the education system.''

Added Costs Seen

Under the GAIN program, all applicants are first given a battery of placement tests. Some are placed in job-training classes; others are helped to find jobs. Those who lack the basic skills required for training or work must take remedial courses.

About 13,000 welfare recipients, most of them single mothers, are enrolled in the nine counties where GAIN is currently offered, Mr. Williams said. The program, he added, is scheduled to expand statewide by next year, and will eventually serve more than 200,000 clients.

According to Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a New York-based think tank that specializes in welfare issues, the California survey is the largest study ever conducted of education levels among welfare clients.

The results of the study, Mr. Williams said, have forced state officials to re-examine their plans for GAIN. Officials estimate the higher-than-expected need for remedial instruction will require clients to remain on the welfare rolls longer, adding about $300 million a year to the program's cost.

The statewide program is likely to encounter even lower test scores, Mr. Williams predicted. Most of the subjects in the initial nine-county survey, he explained, were short-term welfare recipients who had volunteered for GAIN. Statistically, such clients are less likely to need remedial help.

More recent test results, Mr. Williams said, indicate that as many as 70 percent of all welfare recipients may need remedial education. And these figures, he noted, do not include the huge numbers of clients who require English-as-a-second-language instruction.

As the GAIN program expands, state officials are expecting a dramatic increase in the demand for adult-education facilities, swamping the resources available to local education agencies.

According to Mr. Williams, the social-services department is working with the state education department to develop new computer-based instructional methods that will allow the schools to serve larger numbers of students.

The department, he said, has also asked the legislature for money to open its own instructional centers in areas with large numbers of welfare recipients.

New York Program Criticized

In New York City, meanwhile, the educational needs of welfare clients are overwhelming the city's own ambitious workfare program, according to critics of the system.

The program, started in late 1985, has placed about 17,000 single parents in training and education programs or in part-time jobs with city agencies.

But critics charge that the program has offered participants little or no support, such as adequate information about available child-care benefits, educational opportunities, and their right to appeal unfavorable actions.

"They just do not have the resources they need to really make an improvement,'' said Eve Brooks, director of Statewide Youth Advocacy, a nonprofit policy group based in Rochester that recently completed a study of the program.

Because of the program's limited staff, program applicants receive little individual counseling or supervision from their caseworkers, Ms. Brooks said. Clients, she added, must face long waiting lists to enroll in adult-education and English-as-a-second-language courses, even though the city is eligible for unlimited state funding to pay for such programs.

Although the program has reduced welfare costs, Ms. Brooks contended that most of the savings result from "sanctioning,'' a process in which participants are forcibly removed from the welfare rolls for failing to show up for work or for classes.

According to the group's study, nearly 40 percent of all program participants are eventually removed from the rolls, even though many have not found permanent jobs.

"This huge mandatory program is probably the wrong way to go unless we are going to make much more major investments,'' Ms. Brooks said.

City officials say they are in the process of correcting the program's flaws and have attempted to hire and train more caseworkers, reduce the number of sanctions, and provide clients with more information on education and training opportunities.

Vol. 06, Issue 33

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