Ventura County officials have opened the doors to an experiment in welfare reform, a pilot program in south Oxnard designed to help 150 aid recipients trade in their welfare checks for payroll checks.
Unwilling to wait for state lawmakers to forge California's version of the federal welfare reform law passed last year, county officials have their own theories on how best to get aid recipients off the dole and on the job.
And last week, 13 south Oxnard families newly approved to receive Aid to Families With Dependent Children began showing up not at the welfare office on the north side of town but at the Employment Development Department building at 5th Street and Ventura Boulevard.
Over the coming months, this pilot program will gradually expand to include 150 people. Their success or failure in the job market will be measured against another group of 150 aid recipients going through traditional welfare channels.
"This pilot project will help develop the ultimate structure that we will use to reform welfare in Ventura County," said John K. Flynn, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, who has permanently moved his office from the County Government Center in Ventura to south Oxnard in part to be closer to the reform efforts.
The center "is going to turn into a facility unlike any governmental facility we've ever had," he said. "We don't want any old, stale bureaucratic models that have failed for years and years and years. We want a more streamlined model that sheds a lot of red tape, that serves the employer and employee both without discrimination."
Last summer, state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) carried legislation that sought to put state and county agencies under one roof to better help aid recipients hurdle the barriers they face to employment, including child care, transportation, depression, health problems, schooling and alcoholism.
But the bill was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson, who was working on his own welfare reform measures.
But county social engineers decided to push on with a version of the Wright plan anyway.
They expect that once Democrats and Republicans in Sacramento finally do agree on how to overhaul the 60-year-old welfare system, there will be enough flexibility for counties to shape their own visions of reform.
"We didn't want to just sit back and wait," said Helen Reburn, deputy director of Ventura County's social services agency. "Having the EDD site was an opportunity to put our vision into place before we are under the gun with the state legislation."
Dubbed PRIDE--Partnerships to Restore Independence and Dignity Through Employment--the program will be expanded countywide in January. Officials will see what works and what does not over the coming months and will revise the welfare-to-work program to comply with all provisions in the yet-to-be-passed state welfare legislation.
"This is going to be very much of a training operation to see what is important and what is not," said Craig Ichinose, a senior researcher in the county welfare department who will track the progress of both groups of recipients. "It's hard to predict what will happen."
The pilot program will be coordinated from the state Employment Development Department building in Oxnard, an agency that last month teamed up with the federally funded Workforce Development Department to create a one-stop job center for employers and employees.
Indeed, while part of the activity in the building will focus on finding jobs for welfare recipients, the center will help anyone who walks through the door looking for new or better employment.
Once aid recipients' needs are assessed and addressed, they will be treated like anyone else looking to tap into the state and federal job-search resources.
"That's how you integrate," said Jonathan Barbieri, director of the Workforce Development Department, which is administered by the county. "You stop isolating people by entitlements or by categories . . . and you remove the stigma for the individual employers."
In two weeks, another key component to the project will begin across the street from the EDD building. Inside a converted restaurant, the Workforce Development Department will open a business resource center to help business owners craft marketing plans, draw on computer databases and develop personnel strategies.
"We have to appreciate the total picture," Barbieri said. "What can we provide the employer that makes them want to come back? The more they come back, the more they look to this center for their employee needs, the better we're going to be able to service the individual job seekers."
County social services officials understand that helping some aid recipients find work won't be easy.