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Workfare Slowed by Participants' Need for Schooling

February 23, 1987|CARL INGRAM | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — California's fledgling workfare program, touted as a national prototype to substitute paychecks for welfare checks, has run into an unexpected barrier that is crimping the flow of participants into job training and employment.

Surprised state and local welfare officials report that many participants are so poorly educated that they cannot read, write or do simple arithmetic and thus are unable to fill out job applications, read an employer's written directions or make change at a cash register.

As a result, depending on the local situation in the 10 counties operating what are commonly called workfare projects, anywhere from 40% to 50% of the participants are given some form of remedial education before they can be trained and search for jobs.

The need to teach these participants basic educational skills means that it takes longer for them to get jobs and break their dependency on welfare.

"It's making us take a stagger step that we didn't expect to have to take," said Carl Williams, the state Department of Social Services official in charge of what is formally called Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN). "We're going to be making some mid-course corrections."

Williams said that to the extent that the program "is going to have to place a larger portion of its participants into remediation than we at first expected, it will cost more, provided that those costs cannot be paid for by other sources. We don't know how much that will be."

Deukmejian Administration officials and state legislators who fashioned the compromise program in 1985 after years of struggle anticipated that some welfare recipients would need remedial education; they now express astonishment at the huge volume.

"We were all kind of surprised at the percentage of people who had to have this remediation," Williams said. "Our thinking was that it was going to be considerably less than (40% to 50%)."

Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco), an architect of the program that formally got under way last summer in Fresno and Napa counties, agreed that workfare participants "need a lot more remedial help than we ever dreamed of at the outset."

Nevertheless, Agnos and other proponents blame the education barrier on "growing pains" in an ambitious program aimed at reversing what is widely regarded as a half-century tradition of dependence on welfare. The remedial help, according to state and local welfare officials, can include the basic three Rs, English as a second language or completion of work for a high school diploma or its equivalent.

President Reagan is expected soon to submit legislation proposing a national workfare program that would be implemented by state and local governments. Although many other states have some form of workfare, Agnos said, "the eyes and ears of the nation are aimed at California."

Basically, the California program, which Agnos enthusiastically describes as the most "revolutionary, radical, state-of-the-art welfare reform model in the country," requires abled-bodied women who receive welfare and have children over 6 to work, to complete their education or to receive job training in exchange for their benefits under Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

In addition, they can receive paid child care, a major element of the program that Gov. George Deukmejian has budgeted to receive $265.9 million in the next fiscal year, an increase of 186% over the start-up budget. In AFDC families where parents are unemployed, the fathers also must participate.

About 13,000 people, mostly women heads of households, have registered in the 10 counties where the program is under way--Fresno, Butte, Napa, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Yuba, Ventura, Stanislaus, Madera and Kern. Of that total, state figures indicate that 3,000 are receiving remedial education. Officials expect an estimated 200,000 welfare Californians to participate when the program is implemented statewide in about four years.

Los Angeles County, whose caseload accounts for 40% of the AFDC program statewide, is preparing a plan for workfare and must submit it by September. Under the law, Los Angeles and other counties must have their programs ready for operation one year later. They will receive an additional two years to fully implement them.

Williams said precise figures are not available, but he estimated that 800 participants have been placed in jobs since the program got started in Fresno last June. He said a study is being done to learn how many keep their jobs, move on to others or return to unemployment.

Robert E. Whitaker, coordinator of the Fresno County program, testified before a legislative oversight committee last week that he was ready for the deluge of Southeast Asian refugee participants who required remedial education but unprepared for the American-born recipients requiring remedial help.

He said he expected about 50% of long-term recipients would need help with the basics but discovered that about 68% required such aid.

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