A year into welfare reform, Orange County has made significant gains in moving recipients off public assistance and into jobs, according to the latest figures released by the Social Services Agency.
Officials attributed the success in large part to the county's booming economy, which has supplied plenty of jobs for welfare recipients to take. But it remains unclear how the groundbreaking welfare-to-work program will fare this year when the local economy is expected to slow down.
Moreover, some experts are urging caution in analyzing the results for 1998. While the decreasing numbers of people on welfare rolls inspire optimism among advocates of reform, organizations who aid the poor warn that full-time employment is not always enough to lift people out of poverty.
From October 1997 to October 1998, the number of families on welfare in the county declined 20%, from 30,985 to 24,638, said Angelo Doti, director of family self sufficiency at the Social Services Agency. Of that total, about 16,000 were enrolled in the county's welfare-to-work program. More than a third of those work more than 32 hours each week, Doti said.
New applications for welfare benefits are also down. In October 1997, 2,289 people applied for welfare assistance at the county's four offices. In October 1998, there were 2,079 new applicants, Doti said.
People are taking advantage of the welfare-to-work program in myriad ways, enrolling in English as a second language classes, other adult education programs at local community colleges and private industry training programs, Doti said.
"The concept is get a job, get a better job, get a career and successfully exit welfare," Doti said. "We have seen our recipients for the most part really embrace this program."
But among some advocates for the poor, optimism about reform is tempered by concern.
Jean Forbath, founder and former executive director of Share Our Selves, a 29-year-old, nonprofit social services agency in Costa Mesa, lauded the welfare-to-work program for "giving people the support they need to find and maintain jobs."
But Forbath said it is still too early to tell how successful the new law will be. Of particular concern, she said, is the fate of people who are illiterate or barely literate, and of those, often with families, unable to secure jobs for more than the minimum wage.
"At SOS I know that we are still terribly busy. If the welfare rolls have been cut back, our caseload has not been cut back at all," Forbath said. "If people are going back to work there are still an awful lot of people who need help because the work that they have is not taking care of their basic needs."
Another concern to social services officials: how welfare reform will fare this year, when the Asian currency crisis is expected to slow down the local economy.
According to a Chapman University study, the slowdown will translate to lackluster job growth of 1.9% next year, or 25,000 new jobs, down from 1998's projected 3.8%--or 45,000--rise in employment.
Orange County's progress so far mirrors gains around the state and across the country. Every county in California, including those with double-digit unemployment, showed steady decreases in welfare rolls this year, state officials said. Ones with booming economies, such as Santa Clara and San Mateo, reported drops of nearly 25%.
Nationwide, 28% of adults on welfare rolls are now participating in some type of work, according to data released last week from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
The data is the first released from the federal government since the 1996 welfare reform law went into effect. The law gave states broad authority to run welfare.