Unromantic Calif. community tells welfare recipients: Get a job, any job


RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- After a decade of nationa experimentation, no program has done as much to raise the earnings of people on welfare as one here in Riverside County, and its workings can be seen in the gains, losses and dish-worn hands of Janice McClung.

The philosophy here is unromantic: Get a job, any job, even a low-paying, unpleasant job. That cuts across the more prevalent national practice, which stresses education and training first, in the hope that people on welfare can earn more later.

The trade-offs involved can be seen in the case of Ms. McClung, who for the six years since her divorce had nurtured hopes of becoming a graphic artist. She took art classes, aimed for a $36,000 salary, and supported her four children on welfare and the occasional odd job.

But after four days in the county job-search program, Ms. McClung had swapped her plans for something more modest, yet attainable: a $5-an-hour job as a cafeteria worker. "They do push you," she said.

A voluminous new study shows that the Riverside program has done much more than others now required by federal law in helping welfare recipients earn money on their own.

Still, the paychecks remain quite modest, and many people, like Ms. McClung, supplement their earnings with public assistance.

Their total income often rises only modestly, since higher earnings are typically offset by reduction in welfare payments.

Supporters of the work strategy say that earnings will grow with time, arguing that women such as Ms. McClung can expect promotions. Defenders of the classroom approach say education may still lead to superior jobs, though its dividends take longer to accrue.

With President Clinton promising a plan this year to "end welfare as we know it," administration officials are combing the study for lessons. The experiences of women such as Ms. McClung are likely to emerge at the center of a fractious debate about how to help the nation's poorest and most vulnerable families.

Riverside's program bears the imprint of its unusual welfare director, Lawrence Townsend, who courts an image of political incorrectness with diatribes against the nation's main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

"Every time I see a bag lady on the street, I wonder, 'Was that an AFDC mother who hit the menopause wall -- who can no longer reproduce and get money to support herself?' " he said.

Mr. Townsend argues that education and training programs are expensive and that they sometimes become a tactic for delay; some people spend years in tepid pursuit of a high school equivalency degree.

Riverside does provide classes for large numbers of welfare recipients who fail a rudimentary test of basic educational skills. But it monitors their progress closely and is quicker than other counties to tell clients to work first and study later. It is also quicker than others to reduce the grants of those who do not comply.

"To work is education in itself," says Mr. Townsend, who cites his own experiences unloading boxcars and shoveling manure. "It is inherently good. It is developmental. It brings hope."

Mr. Townsend's case is being bolstered by the findings of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit group in New York City that studied 33,000 welfare recipients in six California counties.

Two years after entering the program in the late 1980s, welfare recipients in Riverside had earned 55 percent more than members of a control group; the average earnings increase in the other five counties was 14 percent.

The Riverside results were also much larger than those of the dozen or so programs evaluated in different parts of the country during the mid-1980s.

But the average Riverside participant was still earning only $3,414 a year, and three-quarters of those who got jobs, like Mrs. McClung, are still receiving some welfare.

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