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Study Says Welfare-to-Work Reforms Leave Recipients Below Poverty Line

Findings criticize L.A. County's emphasis on fast employment rather than training. Welfare officials dispute report.

July 23, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Despite all the efforts of welfare-to-work reforms, 78% of current and former welfare recipients who enter the labor force in Los Angeles County still earn incomes below the poverty threshold and many may never become self-sufficient because of disabilities and social dysfunctions, a new study concludes.

Researchers reviewed cases of more than 220,000 parents involved in Los Angeles County's welfare-to-work program since 1998, the year that federal welfare legislation with mandatory work requirements and a five-year time limit on aid took effect. The study found that their average income in 2001 was $5,770. Only 53% had earnings during the year and just 42% were working on average at any given time.

The earnings do not include welfare checks that may boost their current incomes slightly above the federal poverty line, which in 2001 was $14,269 for a family of three. The study also found that the estimated 41,000 recipients who are expected to exhaust their lifetime limit of welfare in the next two years had average annual earnings of $5,391 and faced "bleak" prospects.

The findings are included in a report titled "Prisoners of Hope, Welfare to Work in Los Angeles," released today by the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research group commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors two years ago to recommend ways of increasing the number of welfare recipients who find and keep jobs.

The authors contend that Los Angeles County's emphasis on immediate employment rather than education and training has not served those in welfare-to-work programs. That judgment, however, is disputed by county officials and another research group, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.

The report's co-author, Dan Flaming, said researchers examined "a huge amount of information about people who have gone through the work-first model." County officials have an obligation to "learn from their outcomes and improve the quality of what we accomplish. We have to help these parents attain higher incomes," he added.

In California, most work-to-welfare participants with low wages can still collect a portion of their welfare check, if gross income does not exceed the maximum monthly grant, which last year was about $850 for a family of three and about $1,000 for a family of four. Children in the state may keep their portion of welfare grants beyond the five-year adult time limit as long as the family meets income requirements.

Among the major findings about L.A. County in the report:

* Twenty-six percent of welfare-to-work participants had multiple barriers to employment, including lack of high school diplomas and having been unemployed or on welfare for at least two years. That group earned an average of $4,888 in 2001.

* Thirteen percent showed signs of a permanent or temporary physical disability and earned an average of $3,647; 6% suffered from domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse problems and earned an average of $2,950.

* Welfare-to-work parents have become a significant factor in the county's economy, on any given day accounting for one in 10 job holders and one in three job seekers. "It appears that increasing number of parents are leaving welfare without becoming more employable or finding a job," the report states.

County officials, however, do not agree. More than 275,000 welfare-to-work participants have found jobs since 1998, said Department of Public Social Services director, Bryce Yokomizo, though not all of those job holders are self-sufficient.

More than 5,000 participants are in dozens of vocational training and other support programs. "To say in the report that we take a one-size-fits-all approach does not display an understanding of the flexibility we offer in our welfare-to-work program," Yokomizo said.

Information from L.A. County is considered crucial because it has among the largest caseloads in the country, accounting for 8% of all U.S. recipients and 14% of all national welfare expenditures, according to the study.

The report was timed to coincide with meetings of the Senate Finance Committee, which is considering new federal welfare legislation already passed by the House of Representatives that would, among other things, sharply increase the number of recipients required to work 40 hours a week.

John Wallace, vice president of Manpower research group -- whose emphasis on finding work for welfare recipients has been followed in Los Angeles County and elsewhere in the nation -- said the report's conclusions on income and employment were biased and misleading.

He said, for instance, that many participants voluntarily sought education and training and that their personal preferences, motivations and other factors could explain the differences in their earnings and that of other participants.

Wallace said participants fare best when employment is balanced with education and training but that an overemphasis on education could cost taxpayers too much.

Pamela Garcia, 38, a West L.A. mother of three, said welfare-to-work programs have not prepared her for well-paying employment. She has had low-paying jobs and now works as a minimum wage telemarketer while drawing a $542 monthly welfare check. Garcia said she wanted to become a social worker, but has been told by the county that the schooling she would need would take too long.

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