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Welfare-to-work plan helps redeem lives

Some participants in Ventura County find the program hard but `worth the struggle.' Aid has dropped by about half since 1996.

February 05, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Lisa Valverde never thought she'd be a welfare mom. But a divorce triggered a downward spiral that made her turn to Ventura County's welfare-to-work program as a last resort.

Four years later, Valverde, 39, is employed full time as a fiscal analyst and is studying at night to earn a bachelor's degree.

Her two teenage children are doing well, she said. She recently received her final CalWORKs check.

"I've learned that I'm a survivor," said Valverde, a Santa Paula resident. "It was hard, but it was worth the struggle."

Valverde is just one of thousands of struggling Ventura County welfare recipients -- almost all of them women -- who have managed to turn their lives around with the help of the CalWORKs program.

When federal legislation promising to end "welfare as we know it" won congressional approval in 1996, Lauri Flack remembers wondering whether it would work -- and how low Ventura County's public aid caseload would drop.

More than a decade later, Flack, director of Ventura County's CalWORKs program, has an answer. By offering poor mothers job training, child-care help and transportation -- in addition to financial aid -- welfare rolls have been cut roughly in half.

Meanwhile, even skeptics such as the Children's Defense Fund concede that the changes have not only reduced the number of people on welfare but also helped hundreds of thousands of destitute mothers in California land jobs and begin building careers.

A 2003 report by the Children's Defense Fund, a nonprofit child advocacy group, cited research showing that children from families on public assistance did better in school when welfare policies encouraged parental work and provided support such as child care. The report's authors warned, however, that families could quickly fall back into poverty if the parents lose jobs and support services.

Flack, who oversaw a welfare-to-work job center in Ventura before taking over as chief of the county's CalWORKs program, said she has seen the lives of many families transformed. She credits the federal law's central reform -- changing welfare from an open-ended entitlement to one that ends after five years -- as critical to its success.

"It's been an amazing adventure," Flack said. "These women are doing better, and they are feeling better. No one in this culture of achievement and success likes it to be known they are on public assistance. It's not a positive thing."

However, Flack and her staff won't have any time to savor their success.

The federal government has tightened work requirements for people who apply for CalWORKs. This year, at least 50% of adult recipients must be engaged in "work participation" activities.

Work participation includes such things as attending job training classes, serving an internship or attending college. California's current rate hovers around 24%, said Oscar Ramirez, spokesman for the state Department of Social Services.

If the state fails to meet the new target, it could face economic sanctions, Ramirez said. Counties that don't meet their own targets will share in the penalty, he said.

The state's goal is to further reduce welfare caseloads, saving dollars for the state and federal governments that largely pay for the program, he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to cut cash grants to children of illegal immigrants and certain felons and to terminate checks for any family whose head of household does not participate in mandatory work activities.

Those changes, which are expected to meet stiff resistance in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, would save $336 million annually, budget estimates show.

"We're facing a real loss of funding, and there are always tough decisions to be made," Ramirez said.

Ventura County's Flack said she doesn't anticipate sanctions. The work participation rate of county recipients is about 39%, she said.

"I'm very confident we can make up that 11% with increased activities," she said.

Los Angeles County has a bigger challenge ahead, with a work participation rate of 23.4%. Orange County posts 35.2%, according to state Department of Social Services records.

In Riverside County, 40.6% of welfare recipients participate in weekly work activities, and in San Bernardino County 47.5% are engaged in required activities.

The governor's budget offers new programs aimed at increasing work activities, she added.

"Things will happen quicker than it might have in the past," she said.

When the landmark legislation authorizing welfare reform was approved, Ventura County had about 10,200 families on monthly cash assistance. By 2002, the number had dropped to around 5,300 families.

It has since leveled off, increasing slightly during a recession in 2003 and then dropping back to a current caseload of about 5,400 families.

Flack said she believes a five-year limit on receiving aid is a major reason the reforms have been so successful. Before the 1996 law, parents were entitled to receive a welfare check for as long as they qualified financially and had children under age 18.

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