Welfare Reform: A Message from the "Receiving End."

By Woodson, Robert L., Sr. | National Forum, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Welfare Reform: A Message from the "Receiving End."


Woodson, Robert L., Sr., National Forum


In my role as an advocate for grassroots leaders who serve in hundreds of low-income communities, my comments on welfare reform will reflect the opinions and experiences of those who have been at the "receiving end" of the system. In 1994, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise established a task force of twenty-five community leaders from low-income communities throughout the nation, called the "Grassroots Alternatives for Public Policy" (GAPP). A number of important recommendations of this task force, which were published in a report titled Bridging the Gap: Strategies to Promote Self-Sufficiency Among Low-Income Americans, should be considered in any strategy to reform the welfare system.

Members of GAPP stressed that all anti-poverty legislation should be designed with the recognition that the poor desire self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. The welfare system of the past thirty years has failed not only because it did not require reciprocity and did not provide incentives for work, but also because it actually discouraged work and savings.

Welfare recipients who bravely took their first tentative steps toward self-sufficiency found their earnings reduced dollar-for-dollar from their benefits and even lost the security of health-care coverage. Youths who took part-time jobs with dreams of college educations also witnessed their parents being threatened with the termination of their benefits. Currently much grassroots support can be found for devolving anti-poverty funds and authority to the states, for it is at the state level that innovative strides have been taken to institute commonsense guidelines for determining who should qualify for benefits and what restrictions should apply to them.

However, even if the current regulations that discourage savings and work were to be removed, a number of practical obstacles would remain for low-income individuals who were striving to enter the work force. Among these obstacles are the needs for training, transportation, and child care. Residents of low-income communities have suggestions for creative ways in which all of these needs might be met by using the capabilities that exist within the neighborhoods of welfare recipients.

TRAINING

Firsthand accounts of trainees as well as formal evaluations of government-funded job-training programs reveal that government training has been notoriously inefficient in preparing its trainees to enter the job market successfully. According to a report issued by the Government Accounting Office, Multiple Employment Training Programs: Basic Data Often Missing, only a small fraction of the programs that were reviewed bothered to keep records of the placement rates of their graduates, and those that did keep records revealed embarrassingly little success.

Currently, 154 training programs are being administered by fourteen different government agencies at a cost of nearly $25 billion per year. Much of this energy and money is being wasted in programs such as the "New Chance" training, whose participants worked less and received lower wages than members of a control group that received no training. Those who design the training aspect of welfare-to-work reform should consider not only how much money is spent training but also how it is spent.

In contrast to public-funded training programs, a number of neighborhood-based private job-training initiatives have had remarkably successful track records of job placement. As is the case with most grassroots initiatives founded by residents who have a personal stake in their effectiveness, these training programs focus on outcomes rather than process. Oriented toward a goal of placing their participants, the programs train specifically for an identified existing or expanding job base and have, therefore, established impressive records of success in placement. One private neighborhood-based program in Washington, D.C., "Capital Commitment," which has trained welfare recipients for jobs in the telecommunications industry, has placed 90 percent of its participants in jobs with salaries averaging $25,000. …

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