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Welfare Program Pushes Many Into Jobs

Public aid: Successful GAIN program in Orange and other counties may undergo major changes under law President Clinton signed this week.


Sarah Salazar didn't need Congress or the president to tell her that she had to get off welfare--or else.

The welfare bosses in Los Angeles County told her that in December.

And last month--with three small children at home, no high school degree and not having earned a paycheck in her life--she got her first job.

Salazar, 28, is now making $8.50 an hour, typing patient information into a computer at an Arcadia medical office. "It's the perfect job for me," she said with a smile.

Salazar credits her success to GAIN, an innovative welfare-to-work program pioneered in California, with four offices in Orange County.

GAIN is at the heart of the sweeping new welfare reform program recently approved by Congress and signed into law Wednesday by President Clinton.

Although the GAIN program (for Greater Avenues for Independence) faces reforms of its own under the new law, state officials say Salazar's success--after six bleary months of futile job searches--testifies to three realities in which to frame any federal welfare make-over.

First: Jobs can be hard to find, especially if the prospective employee has no high school degree and no prior work experience.

Second: Personal perseverance pays off.

Third: Some welfare programs actually work in moving people off public assistance.

In her case, Salazar faced a carrot and a stick--GAIN's assistance in finding work, and its insistence that she take it or lose her benefits.

"They told me I had to get a job--any job. Then they said I could get a better job and then a career," Salazar said of her social workers.

"I had always wanted to get a job, and tried so many times," she said. "But there was always something standing in my way: either no baby-sitter, or no prior work experience, or not much education." She dropped out of high school after her junior year.

In December, after 7 1/2 unchallenged years of receiving Aid to Families With Dependent Children, she was beckoned to the GAIN office and given her marching orders. The office would help her find a job, and she would be required to take it or lose her benefits. Only her three children would continue to receive financial aid.

This scenario will become commonplace under the new federal law. With Clinton's signature, Aid to Families With Dependent Children will be wiped off the books after 61 years and replaced by a vast restructuring of the welfare system.

Under the restructuring, states will have new authority to run their own welfare programs with the help of block grants of federal money. Adult recipients will be required to find work within two years and will be allowed to receive aid for no more than five years in a lifetime. Most aid for noncitizens will be cut off.


Salazar admits that the notion that she had to find work--or else--initially upset her.

But it helped that they gave her a bus pass so she could get from one job interview to the next, since she had no vehicle of her own.

Salazar was instructed on how to prepare and dress for an interview, the importance of a work ethic, and she heard one motivational talk after another. "They gave me the confidence I didn't have," she said.

Meanwhile, she was given aptitude tests and assigned unpaid clerical jobs at the welfare office, where she learned how to file and prepare spreadsheets.

She filled out job applications all over town, but after six months was still unemployed. Finally, one of GAIN's job guidance counselors steered her to a medical office opening. She was hired July 11.

"I owe it to GAIN," she said.

As the nation sets out to rework welfare, GAIN stands as proof that large numbers of welfare recipients can be placed in jobs. But certain to emerge in the debates to come is a dilemma faced already in the GAIN program: how much emphasis to put on finding jobs for people versus providing education and training.

What is not known is whether the new rules and regulations will allow GAIN to continue in its current form. Some policy experts say GAIN, like the rest of the welfare system, may have to be changed dramatically.

"The new law sharply limits a state's ability to make use of education and training in its program and severely discourages it from making extended use of job search efforts--all key components of GAIN," said Mark Greenberg, a senior staff attorney for the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy.

That GAIN did all it could to push Salazar and tens of thousands of Los Angeles County residents out of the welfare nest is witness to a relatively new philosophy at the county welfare office, and a sign of things to come.


Welfare recipients are no longer immediately enrolled in vocational classes or sent back to school for a degree as a prerequisite for a job search. The new mantra is: Get a job, any job. Get off welfare as quickly as possible. And then, later, you can go back to school or hone job skills.

That philosophy was adopted two years ago by the county because it had proved wildly successful in Riverside County.

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