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Riverside Plan Puts Welfare Recipients on Job Track : Social services: GAIN shows participants how to find work. Plan has reduced county's payments $16.8 million.


RIVERSIDE — As California and the nation consider welfare reform, they might do well to consider the oh-so-simple observations of 29-year-old Sophia Elsman, unemployed mother of two.

The first time she was on welfare--seven years ago--picking up her check was humiliating for her, business-as-usual for the bureaucracy.

"They didn't motivate you to get off welfare," she recalled. "It was like: 'So, you're on welfare? No big deal. Here's your check. See ya next time.' "

Well, Elsman is back on welfare again, picking up a check for $312 on the 1st and 15th of the month. She is a homemaker, separated from her husband, caring for an 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.

But when she showed up this time at the Riverside County Department of Social Services, things were different.

"Now," she said, "they want me to get a job."

In the numbing world of social services bureaucracy--of endless study and process--Riverside County is pursuing a notion so obvious as to be stupefying. The key, officials say, is simply to get welfare recipients into jobs as quickly as possible.

"It's something people have a hard time dealing with," said Terry Welborn, a mid-level manager in the county's welfare department. "It's something any 10-year-old kid could tell you, but a doctorate in sociology can't: If you want people to get off welfare, you stay on their backs until they get a job."

A national research organization reported last week that California's 7-year-old work welfare program known as GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence) is having substantial success in placing welfare recipients into jobs and thereby reducing welfare costs to the state, based on a study of those who participated in GAIN from 1988 to 1990.

And the most effective GAIN program is in Riverside County, researchers found.

Single-parent GAIN participants in Riverside County earned 55% more money than welfare recipients here who did not participate in the program, according to the two-year study by the New York-based Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.

Over the same two-year period, GAIN participants in San Diego County increased earnings by 22% and ranked second behind Riverside; GAIN participants in Los Angeles County increased their income 4%.

Los Angeles' figures were low, researchers said, because an extraordinary number of GAIN recipients needed the most basic education before they could enter the job market or because they could not speak English. In addition, Los Angeles' GAIN was less advanced than other programs when the study was conducted.

The GAIN program offers an array of services, including education, training, job search assistance, transportation and child care.

But the state offers its counties flexibility in administering the GAIN program, and the Riverside County welfare chief has distilled the philosophy to the bare bones:

We want you to get a job, now, said Lawrence Townsend Jr., director of Riverside County's Department of Public Social Services. We're not going to train you for years; we're not going to send you to school for years. We're going to show you how to apply for a job, interview for a job, dress for a job and find a job. Then you're going to get a job. It may be an entry-level job, but at least your foot is in the door and how well you succeed from there is up to you.

And if you do not cooperate with us, this bureaucrat said, we will take you off welfare. Your children will still get money from us, but you won't. Get the message?

In a government bureaucracy that can be lost in numbers, this county offers three sets of its own, even newer, figures to show its success.

* Last year, 3.5% of the state's welfare population lived in Riverside County, yet 19.5% of the welfare recipients in California who got jobs were from this county.

* In the 31,000 families receiving welfare in Riverside County last year, primarily single-parent households, 7,500 members got jobs. Before GAIN, the county was lucky just to get 2,000 people a year into jobs and off welfare.

* The GAIN project cost Riverside County about $8.5 million annually--representing federal, state and local funds. Yet because of the number of people who graduated from GAIN and got jobs, the county reduced its welfare payments by $16.8 million over a recent 12-month period.

Simply put, GAIN not only paid for itself but essentially made a nearly 2-for-1 return on investment.

Riverside County's secret is keeping all eyes on the same target--job placements--without being distracted by the bureaucratic process or putting too much emphasis on education or vocational training, said Welborn, one of three regional managers for GAIN in Riverside County.

Welborn, a veteran of many government social programs with acronyms--CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), WIN (Work Incentive Program) and others--says he has never seen a program work as well as GAIN.

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