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First Things First in Welfare Program

Employment: Poor people are no different from anyone else. They need help with problems that get in the way of jobs.

October 05, 1998|SAM MISTRANO and KAREN BASS | Sam Mistrano is director of the Human Services Network of Los Angeles. Karen Bass is executive director of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment

It seems obvious, but people on welfare--poor people--need help to overcome obstacles to obtaining and keeping a job. Although Los Angeles County has the resources to provide this help, it is not doing so. Failing to identify and treat welfare recipients' barriers to sustained employment does not save public funds nor does it help people move permanently off welfare.

People who need welfare assistance have many of the same problems that face other people, but they have fewer ways to deal with them.

For example, according to a 1997 study done by the Irvine-based nonprofit Children and Family Futures, an estimated 25% of welfare recipients have alcohol or drug-related problems that are likely to interfere with their ability to get and keep a job. But the poor cannot afford pricey treatment clinics.

Another study, by the California Department of Social Services, estimates that up to 29% of adult aid recipients have mental health problems. But costly therapy or other mental health programs are not available to them. And a 1997 report by the Project for Research on Welfare, Work and Domestic Violence details four geographically diverse studies showing that more than 50% of the sampled welfare caseload had been victimized by domestic abuse, and there is no reason to believe that Los Angeles County's welfare recipients are any different. But poor women who are abused have fewer options to escape than better situated women.

Could a person earning $35,000 a year deal with these problems without government help and still stay productively employed? Perhaps. But someone with no resources with which to pay for services must rely on the government for temporary help.

Although the need for drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services and domestic violence counseling are well known in Los Angeles, they are provided in such paltry measure as to be almost nonexistent. Of the 50,000 people enrolled in the county's welfare-to-work program from April to June, 101 received domestic violence services, 43 received mental health assistance and 31 received substance abuse treatment. Even at that, the vast majority of those people needing help in these areas were already getting assistance prior to entering the welfare-to-work program, called GAIN. During the same period, 5,504 of GAIN participants were denied welfare because they failed to fulfill some requirement or other of the program. In other words, for every person who got treatment, 31 got their aid cut.

Why aren't recipients getting the help they need to move off welfare? For once, lack of funds is not the reason. The county's Department of Public Social Services has an extra half-billion dollars this year to administer its welfare program to the 750,000 people on aid. And yet the county is frittering away this unique opportunity.

As one example, a recipient must show proof of being rejected by 50 employers before he or she can speak to a county job development specialist, who then might assist recipients with resume writing and job hunting as well as issues of self-esteem.

Recipients also must fail to find a job before they are screened for literacy capabilities and problems relating to domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health. Even when recipients disclose these problems, they are told that there are no services available to help them overcome these barriers to employment unless they have failed repeatedly to find a job. And because the county's subsidized child care program is in such disarray, many parents who are employed or in job training programs cannot get timely payments for their child care providers and therefore must stay home and take care of their kids, only to be told that they have to go out and get a job or lose welfare benefits.

The county has created a welfare system in which families are far more likely to have their aid cut for not complying with extraordinarily complex rules, rules for which thousands of welfare workers have received only cursory training, than to get the help they need. As a result, county officials are boasting of program savings that in great part are based on pushing people off welfare who have failed to meet some technical GAIN requirement, a false savings that will surely result in long-term costs to the county as families fall through into deep, unrelieved poverty.

To move off welfare and into work, a poor person needs the same help any of us would need to meet challenges and conquer debilitating problems. If the county moves blindly ahead and continues with its present system, vast amounts of money will be wasted in a program that helps few people and needlessly frustrates many thousands more. Los Angeles County must remember the simple rules of poverty: It won't go away if you ignore it.

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