From The Dole To The Payroll
Four years after the welfare-to-work initiative, a newly minted workforce finds a mixed bag of success and hardship.
Thursday, March 8, 2001
Shannon Hyde has been receiving cash aid from the state since she had her first child at age 15. Four more kids and 15 years later, Hyde decided it was time to get a job, get her life together and set an example for her children.
And if not for federal welfare reform in 1996, it could have taken a lot longer. Two years ago, after the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids Act (CalWORKs) was enacted in California in response to federal legislation, Hyde was cut off from aid for refusing to participate in the "welfare-to-work" activities required by the new law. She scraped by on the couple hundred dollars a month she continued to receive for her children.
Months of living on couches and moving from motel to motel finally wore on Hyde, and last fall, she called her welfare case worker and said she was ready to get started toward employment. Those were the magic words. Just a few months later, Hyde is now working 30 hours a week as a hotel operator, settling into a four-bedroom house in Soledad and reveling in the pride and encouragement of those close to her.
Not all welfare recipients in Monterey County will find work as quickly or as easily as Hyde, but the vast majority of former Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients are currently somewhere along the road toward gainful employment. The 1996 welfare reform replaced the unlimited eligibility for aid with a 60-month lifetime limit and required states to design specialized programs emphasizing a rapid move into the workforce.
California responded in 1997 with CalWORKs, a temporary cash assistance program that requires aid recipients to engage in training programs or English language instruction that will help land them employment within two years. The program espouses a "work first" approach, offering training to prepare people for the workaday world and helping them to create individualized "welfare-to-work" plans. Once that plan is signed, the clock starts ticking away toward what''s known in the business as the "fish or cut bait deadline" that falls 18-24 months later.
The impact of these changes is already evident. Since CalWORKs took effect in January 1998, the Monterey County doles have declined by nearly a third--from 7,120 families on assistance to 4,885.
Statewide, the numbers are comparable, though slightly less dramatic. The grand total CalWORKs caseload has declined by some 26 percent to just over a half million families on aid.
These numbers, plus interaction with clients, have staff at the Monterey County Department of Social Services believing the recent changes are a step in the right direction.
"I took a phone call from a distressed client who said her pregnant teenage cousin hadn''t gotten her assistance money," explains department assistant director Marilyn Clark. "It was just, ''OK, I''m pregnant, it''s time to go get something from the state.'' That attitude has totally shifted, and that''s an extraordinary benefit. Because once attitudes change, behavior can change."
But while statistically CalWORKs has achieved a good measure of success in its first three years, the program has its critics. A report published last year by Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco termed the program "a broken promise" for focusing solely on rapid entry into the workforce and funneling aid recipients into low-paying, dead-end jobs without giving them individualized assistance.
"Our perspective is that a lot of county programs are really pushing people into low-wage jobs instead of taking the time to provide training programs and what they need to access higher paying jobs," says staff attorney Doris Ng.
The local picture in Monterey County suggests that a strong California economy and the virtue of a small local population have heightened the chances of welfare recipients gaining from the new program and finding meaningful work. But the reality remains that in this high-cost area, work doesn''t guarantee the grandiose goal of "self-sufficiency" so touted by the writers of welfare reform. All too often, what it spells is "working poor."
Ready, Set, Go
Never having held down a job for more than a week in her life, Shannon Hyde needed some practical guidance to usher her into the working world. So like all new Monterey County CalWORKs participants, she enrolled in the mandatory five-day-long work readiness workshop at the One-Stop Career Center in Salinas, where staff teach interviewing skills, professional demeanor, resume-writing and just plain confidence- building.
"I was so scared, but Deborah and Sally Anne said, ''You can do it,''" Hyde recalls of her first days at One-Stop. "They said, ''What are your skills?" And I told them, ''Nothing.'' They said, ''You plan meals, you manage money. You''re self-employed, basically.'' And really I realized I did do a lot and I did know a lot."
That understanding helped Hyde through two rounds of interviews with the Marriott and landed her soon after with a stable job surrounded by people she finds supportive and family-minded.
The One-Stop Career Center is the meat of Monterey County''s CalWORKs program. It''s there that folks on aid begin their training, search job banks for openings, and grab a pair of pumps for an interview. Following the introductory seminar, clients begin a supervised job search, using an extensive skills assessment to design a welfare-to-work plan with their case manager. Vocational training, language instruction, volunteer work, and counseling are a few possible components of these plans.
Monterey County''s program has many elements unique to the reality and demographics of the region. While the state sets the basic requirements of CalWORKs in terms of time limits and qualifying work activities, counties were given a fair amount of flexibility in how to make it all happen.
Sandra Weaver, program manager at One-Stop, is responsible for all employment services for CalWORKs. She recalls that AFDC, the pre-welfare reform aid program, kept counties much more "rule-bound," which left staff waffling in the joy and confusion of their newfound freedom in the early days of CalWORKs.
"Workers have a lot of discretion now as to how you treat individuals. No one says everyone has to go in the same order," Weaver explains. "Isn''t that wonderful? That we''re recognizing that finally? One criticism has been that it''s all ''work first,'' but I don''t feel in Monterey County that we practiced that for very long. There is a deterrent in pushing people into the first job they can find. They might not fit, or there might be no opportunities for progression."
Sean Lyle, a 30-year-old single father of four, recently left behind odd jobs in construction to go on aid and use the time to pursue training for a more stable career. Lyle is receiving cash assistance from CalWORKs, as well as help with child care (the program pays his mother to care for the children in her Seaside home), food stamps, Medi-Cal, and help with tuition toward his future dream of becoming a police officer.
"You spend so much time working your whole life," reasons Lyle. "I paid taxes, and when you need help, the system can give back to a person. It was in my best interest to go back to school so I wouldn''t keep bouncing around."
Lyle graduated from the Monterey Peninsula College police academy in December and received a one-time six-month extension to continue on aid while he pursues his Associate''s Degree in the administration of justice. Now in his last months of aid, Lyle faces the tough reality of securing work in the highly competitive field of law enforcement and recognizes that he may not have time to reach his goal before his aid runs out.
"My main objective is to get into law enforcement," he reflects. "But I''m ready to get back into the work force with the knowledge I''ve obtained. I''m marketing myself everywhere."
Another aspect of Monterey County''s individualized care for welfare recipients, says Weaver, is the recognition that some folks need special care and focus. The county has carefully designed its services to concentrate substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental health counseling on-site at the Department of Social Services to ensure that clients are hooked up with necessary services as soon as possible.
Anne Garcia just graduated from the Pueblo Del Mar substance abuse program in Marina, a collaborative project of Social Services and other county agencies that now serves as a nationwide model. Garcia entered the recovery program on the verge of a nervous breakdown and suffering from debilitating stress. She says the program helped her get back on her feet after six years of heavy drug use.
Garcia''s data entry skills, past education and bilingual abilities helped her land the first job she interviewed for--a position as a legal secretary with a Salinas law firm--but her challenges are far from over.
"Addiction will always be an issue for me. It''s a lifelong process," she says matter-of-factly. "When I need help, I call my counselors at Pueblo or my sponsor. My CalWORKs caseworker, Carolyn, has also been very supportive. I have a lot of support."
Shannon Hyde is operating on overdrive and it shows. In the span of an hour, she bursts into tears three times, recalling the stabbing death of a former partner and trying to put into words how much her children mean to her in this time of amazing transition in her life.
Though she''s tickled pink about her new position at the Marriott, Hyde acknowledges that the hour-long commute from her new home in Soledad to downtown Monterey is wearing on her.
"It''ll take me a little while to get used to my work schedule, but I can do it," she says convincingly. "I remind myself of my kids to keep myself going." Between getting her 5-, 8-, 11-, and 14-year-old kids up for school, caring for her toddler and working the swing shift, Hyde is on the go from 6:30am to 1:00am several days a week.
While finding a job in today''s market may be easier than anticipated--in January, the jobless rate in California fell to the lowest it''s been in more than three decades at 4.5 percent--the challenges to staying on the job remain manifold.
The primary local hurdles identified by CalWORKs and Social Services staff include high housing costs, poor transportation to remote areas of the county, lack of job mobility in the service sector, the high rate of seasonal and part-time employment, lack of child care options, and limited English language skills.
Some issues lend themselves more easily to mitigation than others. When it became apparent that child care was a major issue for most participants, Social Services joined a regional collaborative of agencies in building the Mountain Valley Family and Child Development Center and spread the word that relatives and partners of aid recipients could receive pay for providing child care.
Resources were also pooled to begin training CalWORKs participants as van drivers in order to launch shuttles from outlying parts of the county to job centers like Salinas and Monterey. Nonetheless, long distances and varied hours make such options difficult for many.
More intractable still is the lack of affordable housing in the region. CalWORKs can do its part to qualify participants for Section 8 housing, but staffers can''t force landlords to accept the vouchers.
Hyde''s solution was to move out to Soledad, where she uses a Section 8 voucher and pays only $160 a month out of her own pocket for a two-story, four bedroom home. But when her car broke down at midnight on a remote South County road as she returned home from work last week, she stopped to reconsider her set-up.
Sean Lyle, on the other hand, chose to stay in Seaside to be close to his family and central to the services he needs. With CalWORKs and a patchwork of other assistance, he can only afford a one-bedroom apartment for himself and his four school-aged children.
"It does get difficult at times," Sean concedes. "But I view it as ''they''re my children--children I asked the Lord for and that I planned for. I''m going to take care of them for the rest of their lives.''"
Well aware of these challenges to staying on the job, in September, CalWORKs contracted with the Arbor Career Center in Salinas to provide one year of job retention support and progression to CalWORKs clients. Arbor''s job, as Hyde puts it, is to "help you with almost anything, just so you can keep your job."
That means Arbor''s "employment coaches" will do just about anything for their clients, from giving people rides home to securing CalWORKs funding to fix a car, to locating appropriate child care services. The Center also offers counseling and planning help to keep CalWORKs clients moving on up the job ladder, as well as a resource room, free motivational pizza nights and workshops on budgeting, tax preparation and stress reduction.
Although Anne Garcia is pleased to be bringing in $11 an hour at the Salinas law firm where she works, she got quite a shock when she realized that meant no more aid.
"I got cut off from cash aid right away, as soon as I got my paycheck for my first four days on the job," she says resentfully. "It was a struggle to find a place to live, put down a security deposit and buy food. It was really hard. A transition would''ve been nice."
Most newly employed CalWORKs participants continue to be eligible for limited aid during a transitional period, but Garcia''s relatively high wage disqualified her. Even though Garcia is now "post-aid," she still continues to receive Medi-Cal coverage and subsidies for child care and transportation.
This is the reality for most newly working CalWORKs participants, who face largely low-paying service industry and seasonal labor jobs in a region with an incredibly high cost of living. Though the Monterey County CalWORKs caseload has steadily declined over the past two years, the number of Medi-Cal recipients has increased by 16 percent and the number of non-CalWORKs food stamps recipients has grown by a whopping 56 percent (the absolute number decreased slightly as newly employed folks got disqualified from the program).
With national and statewide rhetoric so intent on getting people into work, critics such as the Equal Rights Advocates say the program has failed when working people are unable to become totally self-sufficient and off aid.
But this reality was not necessarily a surprise to those in charge of welfare reform. Social Services'' Marilyn Clark says the writing was always on the wall. "I maintained from the beginning that it would be a transfer of payments from cash subsidies to some of these other things," she says. In fact, Social Services wants to make sure people are aware that they are still eligible for assistance.
"We''re looking at Medi-Cal now not as assistance but as a way of providing people with coverage," says Social Services'' Susan West. Staying hooked into Medi-Cal, food stamps and other subsidies, she says, "is part of what enables them to become stable."
Sean Lyle agrees. "People don''t normally plan a single parent family, but things happen," he says from experience. "In this day and age, it''s difficult to maintain a family on one income. Even working people need assistance, and that should be provided. We have this country sending money to other countries, but we should take care of home first. Clean up your own backyard, so to speak."
Hyde steamed headfirst into her first offer: an $8.50-an-hour job at the Marriott replete with an hour-long commute in each direction. Now she''s starting to think about the long-term viability of her arrangement. Lyle has just a few more months to secure work as a police officer before getting cut off aid, and he''s already looking into other careers. When Anne Garcia''s aid window came to a close, she put her dream of a becoming a medical technician on hold (even after a year of schooling) to take a position as a legal secretary.
Throughout the county and the state, aid recipients are reaching their time limits for finding work, and like Garcia, Lyle and Hyde, many of them may end up in jobs that share little in common with what they have trained for or dreamed about.
From her post at the One-Stop Career Center, Sandra Weaver argues that the job of CalWORKs is changing deep-seated attitudes and enhancing abilities, not offering a quick fix.
"We''re not talking about taking one job and loving it forever," says Weaver. "That''s not the reality anymore. We''re talking about building an attachment to the labor force, of building a skill set and a perspective on what people can do and what they want to do."
But a more serious deadline looms only two years down the line. People who have been on aid continuously since welfare reform was passed in 1996 have only two years left in their 60-month lifetime limit. Social Services staff admits reluctantly that, even in a small county like Monterey where CalWORKs participants receive a fair amount of individual attention, there will be individuals and groups of people who fall between the cracks when that final deadline hits.
One-Stop training supervisor Karin Locke thinks the non-English speakers--a significant number in Monterey County--will be hardest hit. Susan West says the folks she worries about most when it comes to "timing out" are those with mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as folks suffering from less noticeable social phobias and learning disabilities.
"Based on our experience with the current Welfare-to-Work program, there are a certain number of individuals working very hard and doing everything they''re asked to do, but they''re not able to progress to higher pay," she explains. "They''re not able to earn enough to support their families."
And while exemptions from time limits do exist for certain groups of people deemed unable to perform in the job world, evidence of mental and physical incapacity need to be extremely well documented to gain approval.
The bottom line is that some people will stumble and fall when that lifetime limit hits, and the state very well may be making another transfer of payments from in-kind aid to homeless shelters and institutions serving the mentally disabled.
All that being said, Marilyn Clark believes it''s necessary to view the program for its overall benefit. "Welfare reform is not seen as some kind of panacea--we see all the social problems in the world within Social Services," she says in CalWORKs'' defense. "But it certainly is positive and empowering for participants, and most clients are thrilled to be working with welfare reform."