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Valley Perspective

Reforming Welfare to Work

To keep people on the job, training should help them move from entry level.

June 29, 1997|BARBARA PERKINS | Barbara Perkins, a resident of Sylmar, is founding president of the San Fernando Valley Section of the National Council of Negro Women

For 61 years this country's welfare system guaranteed cash assistance to all eligible children and families. It was our safety net for the poor. But the system often did not support or positively encourage families to move from temporary need to permanent situations that enhanced their quality of life. The system was flawed and it needed to be reformed.

The new reality, however, is that the federal law aimed at welfare reform has the potential to make a bad situation far worse.

As an advocate for women, I have spent the last nine years educating myself and volunteering my time on issues affecting the quality of life for women and children. In May, I attended the sixth annual Women in Action Lobby Day at the state Capitol in Sacramento, an event co-sponsored by 42 women's groups statewide. The focus was the impact of welfare reform on women and children and participants were introduced to state Sen. Diane E. Watson (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and co-chair of the Joint Conference Committee on Welfare Reform. These panels are charged with deciding what our state's response to the new federal law should be.

People continue to debate whether the federal welfare reform bill should have been signed last August, but this is a waste of time. The bill has been signed and many of us who did not know before now know that it is a bad bill. I know that the five-year lifetime limit for families to receive federal funds is inadequate. This state does not create enough jobs that pay a livable wage to encourage these families to work. Minors who are parents can only receive funds if living at home or in another adult-supervised setting. There is also the option of denying assistance to unwed parents under 18.

In an ideal world, this sounds great. In reality, this is wrong.

The federal plan eliminates Aid to Families with Dependent Children and introduces Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). TANF money will come to the state as a block grant and be administered by the state. The federal government will assume no responsibility for people living in poverty.

This federal law also has no provisions for education and job training for school dropouts, displaced workers, the poor and others lacking adequate opportunities or having special needs. Common sense tells us that education and training programs are essential to improving employability and earnings. GAIN--Greater Avenues for Independence--the state's welfare-to-work program and Los Angeles County's most significant avenue for preparing many of these families for jobs, is not the answer for all.

GAIN is an exemplary program with the statistics to show that people are moving from welfare to work. However a key phrase of GAIN representatives is that GAIN will help find you a job, a better job and then a career. Yet I have heard no one from GAIN talk about the intermediary training that needs to be provided for the better job or the career. The basics are certainly necessary, but I am not sure the responsibility of skill development belongs with the entry-level employer.

Higher education gives a person greater opportunity to earn a livable wage. There has to be some process whereby individuals who were successful, perhaps as a result of their GAIN experience in securing an entry-level position, can come back and advance to the next level. This type of arrangement supports a person more long-term and can transition them from welfare permanently. This is the type of reform effort that we need.

Watson and her committees have a big job to do. Women in Action Lobby Day allowed me and hundreds of others to provide our ideas on how they will do their job.

It is simply not acceptable for those of us who can "find our voices" not to speak up.

If the state's response to the federal welfare reform bill is not one that offers total support to women, poor families and children, I believe we are headed for social disaster. This will affect me and you.

There is much that each of us can do, if we only get involved. A suggestion is to start by trying to understand the responsibilities of the state, county and city and what is being done. Ask questions about how you can be helpful. And then do something.

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