How Welfare Reform Helps Ada Cardoza but She Is among the Most-Qualified Recipients. What about Others? What If the Economy Slips?

Article excerpt

As a single parent and former welfare recipient, Ada Cardoza openly says that "life hasn't been easy."

But now things are looking up. She works each afternoon sorting small packages into bags by zip code at a United Parcel Service facility in Chelmsford, Mass. She gets paid $8 an hour.

Nearly a year after President Clinton signed the welfare-overhaul bill, reform is going far better than critics predicted last summer. Mr. Clinton boasted recently that the welfare rolls have shrunk by 1.2 million people since August. Economists say former welfare recipients have helped fill some labor shortages in the robust economy. "Welfare reform couldn't have come at a better time," says Isabell Sawhill, an economist at the Urban Institute in Washington. "Because the economy is expanding so nicely, there are lots of jobs out there." The strong economy has made reform relatively easy so far. But some major hurdles loom. For instance, the most-qualified welfare recipients find it easier to move into jobs, but those with fewer skills may not make the leap so quickly. "Almost regardless of the state of the economy, some welfare recipients are likely to encounter real difficulties in securing steady employment," notes Sawhill, co-author of a study on job prospects for welfare recipients. Also, even many of those who have found jobs are still living just above the poverty level. And if the economy does sputter, former welfare recipients could face much tougher times. In Chelmsford, however, UPS worker shortage has been partly met by the 25 people in the program for welfare recipients. It has "fit our needs," says Christopher McNeil, work-force planning manager. "And it fits their needs." So far, more than 200 companies have joined Clinton's Welfare to Work Partnership. The goal is to have 1,000 companies signed on within the next six months. Headed for self-sufficiency For Ms. Cardoza there's little doubt her life has improved. "I'm better off," she says. Working 20 hours a week, with overtime at Christmas, she makes at least $640 a month. She used to get just $300 a month from welfare and $76 in food stamps. And in the morning, she goes to a UPS-sponsored school in her hometown, Lawrence, Mass. Having dropped out of school in ninth grade, she's working on a high school equivalency diploma. Under the new law, Washington imposes a lifetime limit of five years of receiving welfare benefits and gives control of welfare cash assistance to the states. Cardoza had already been on welfare more than five years when she got her job seven months ago at UPS, at first unloading and loading trucks. …