JACKSON, Miss. -- Welfare reform isn't good enough for Mississippi, which intends to settle for nothing less than a revolution. It is taking public assistance money away from mothers and passing it on to employers, who give the women jobs and turn welfare into wages.
"We've been telling poor people, 'We'll sit on the veranda with our straw hats and mint juleps, and we'll take care of you,' " says Donald R. Taylor, executive director of the state Department of Human Services. "Not anymore."
Now Mississippi tells the poor to accept any job offered, or lose all benefits. If employers hire a welfare recipient, the state will provide a subsidy of $3.50 an hour. The employers need add only $1 an hour to the wages.
The project, called WorkFirst, began a year ago with 25 percent of the welfare caseload. At the heart of the experiment is the conviction that most job-training programs are a failure and that the best training for a job is a job.
"Those programs have been driven by the federal government," Taylor says, "and success has been judged on the number of participants and not the outcomes. That's where we've missed the point."
The idea has plenty of critics, who speculate that state officials are naive about how many good jobs are available, or perhaps are just plain mean. It has also provoked widespread interest from other states, which are looking for inspiration as they struggle to develop their own reform plans.
The federal government has ordered the states to put half their welfare caseloads to work within six years and to impose a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. With that, after 60 years of running welfare, it withdrew and left reform in the hands of local politicians.
"Mississippi has had a large welfare population for a long time," says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard. "It has had among the lowest benefits. To hand it to the employers? That sounds like going back to the old system of sharecropping."
Closer to home, Rims Barber is angry. Barber, who has long fought for civil rights in Mississippi, says Gov. Kirk Fordice, a conservative Republican, simply wants to punish poor people.
The governor denies that and says he's coming up with a realistic solution to an intractable problem. Fordice says too many mothers are having too many children so they can collect welfare -- though Mississippi is hardly known for its largess. A mother and child receive $96 a month in Aid for Families with Dependent Children here, and a second child brings in $24, for a family total of $120 a month. In Maryland, by comparison, a mother and two children receive $373 a month.
"I think the governor thinks poor black women are having too much sex and enjoying it too much," says Barber, director of the Mississippi Human Services Agenda in Jackson. The governor, Barber likes to say, thinks the best job training is a good alarm clock.
That used to be true in America -- getting to work on time every day was the first rung on the ladder up. But times have changed, in Mississippi and America, and fewer entry-level jobs lead upward toward careers. With the loss of middle-income manufacturing jobs, more people, punctual or not, are stuck at the first rung.
'It's a lot better'
Medgar Evers Boulevard turns into U.S. 49 as it heads northwest out of Jackson, a road map to the economic upheavals of the last generation. The road undulates gently as it leaves behind the fast-food lights of Jackson and its low-paying but plentiful jobs in the service industry.
Vickie Christian, who lives just off the boulevard, is among 5,000 Mississippi welfare recipients who have been told to find jobs. If they refuse to cooperate by failing to look for jobs or to accept one, they are "sanctioned." They lose their checks.
Christian was eager to work and, after interviewing at a chicken factory and a Frito-Lay plant, took a job as a presser at a dry cleaning shop. She wanted to work because the state promised her Medicaid and child care and transportation subsidies for two years -- which would make working profitable, even at a low-wage job.
A 30-year-old mother of three children, ages 12, 8 and 6, she
lives in the Christian Brotherhood housing project.
"Before, I was only getting $144 a month, so I'm doing much better now," says Christian, who earns $5.50 an hour and works 32 to 40 hours a week. "It's a lot better getting out to work than just sitting around."
In two years, she'll have to pay for health insurance and child care out of a paycheck that often falls short of $220 a week. "I hope I get a raise by then," she says.
Sociologists predict she won't.
Kathryn Edin, a Rutgers University sociologist, says that women who have left welfare for work earn only tiny raises -- one study found raises of only $1 an hour after six years.
"What we found is you can't live on low-wage employment," she says. "The problem with a program like Mississippi's is it assumes that any job is a good job, and it assumes something about the job market that isn't true -- that you can go on to a better job. There's no premium on experience in the low-wage sector."
After two years, when the subsidies run out, she says, many women will return to welfare.
"Transitional benefits aren't going to help," Edin says. "It doesn't get anyone out of the $5-an-hour ghetto. It doesn't get them the $8 or $9 an hour they need to support a family."
'You have to be a fighter'
U.S. 49 has only light truck traffic. The textile jobs, which sustained the last generation of Mississippi workers, have moved to Asia. The new polarized economy, with good-paying jobs for the well-educated at the top and low-paying jobs for the low-skilled at the bottom, with little in between, has made its mark along the roadside.
Large, elegant houses, surrounded by fences with locked gates, can be glimpsed at the end of winding driveways outside Jackson. Here and there, dilapidated trailers and tumbledown houses dot the lonely countryside.
Yazoo City opens the way to the Delta, the fabled home of cotton and blues, where the economy bears witness to the inexorable forces that have transformed work in America and made welfare so resistant to solutions.
Rosie Dunson lives in Anguilla, between Yazoo City and Rolling Fork. She is 34 years old, with lean, muscular arms. "You have to be a strong fighter like me to survive here," she says.
Sharkey County once had a labor-intensive cotton economy. Mechanization made agriculture so efficient that the jobless rate hovers around 18 percent. Dunson is supporting her four children with welfare. She has work experience, but no job.
"I started chopping cotton when I was 15," she says. "Now there aren't any jobs here."
She last worked as a nursing assistant. When her patient died, she was out of a job. She agrees with the state on one thing: Its job-training efforts have been ineffectual, if not laughable.
"They sent one of my girlfriends to learn to make quilts; it was a waste of time," she says. "There's no quilt-making factory here. What are you training us for when there isn't any factory?"
'The concept is right'
Mississippi has adopted WorkFirst in six counties, representing 25 percent of its welfare caseload. In those counties, any woman who is receiving Aid for Families with Dependent Children must accept any job offered, unless she has a child under 3. If she can't find a job, the state tries to create openings by offering employers a $3.50-an-hour subsidy for six months.
Maryland considered a similar program as it began its own reforms but did not adopt it. In June 1994, the Governor's Commission on Welfare Policy published recommendations that included a minority report, written by Charles D. Hobbs, the consultant who developed Mississippi's plan.
William Winter, a former Mississippi governor who helped start the Foundation for the Mid South to promote regional development, cautions about being too quick to emulate his state.
"The concept is right," Winter says, "but it presumes there will be jobs. In a state like Mississippi -- a rural state where job creation is slow -- I see some real problems unless there is a public works program that creates jobs."
The Center for Applied Research at Jackson's Millsaps College, which is evaluating WorkFirst, found that 23 percent of clients were placed in jobs in the first nine months, from among 5,152 eligible clients.
A majority of clients (682) found jobs in the open market, rather than subsidized jobs (360). By the end of nine months, the job-retention rate was 39 percent in unsubsidized jobs and 35 percent in subsidized jobs.
During the first nine months, 478 clients were sanctioned for failing to cooperate and lost their checks. Thirty-five percent remained off welfare, and 34 percent cooperated and returned. The remainder applied only for food stamps and were no longer subject to WorkFirst.
After a year, 45 percent of the WorkFirst group is off welfare, compared with 36.3 percent in a control group.
"If your goal is to reduce welfare rolls," says Bill M. Brister, co-director of the Millsaps center, "you'd have to judge this a success."
The Rev. Carol Burnett, a Methodist minister who operates a community center in Biloxi, disagrees. "Over and over, I hear women say they're not on welfare for $96," she says. "They're on welfare to get Medicaid."
Once they run out of Medicaid, she predicts, they'll fall back into poverty and dependency. And when they reach their five-year welfare limit, they and their children will be desperate.
"Mississippi developed an economic strategy of promoting its cheap, nonunionized labor," she says. "The legacy of that strategy is we have employers who pay low salaries and don't offer benefits."
In Sharkey County, the last factory closed a year ago, with a loss of 285 jobs in Rolling Fork.
Dot Pearson, the town clerk, worries about what will happen when welfare reform reaches Sharkey County and people are tossed off the rolls with no jobs to land in.
Larry Temple, deputy director of the state Human Services Department, says they can get out and support themselves, like everyone else. Let them take night classes and figure out themselves how to move up, he says.
Temple pulls out a calculator and totes up the new economic arithmetic in Mississippi.
A woman with two children gets $5,220 a year in Mississippi -- $120 in cash and $315 a month in food stamps. With a $5.15-an-hour job, she earns $10,712. She qualifies for an earned income tax credit of $3,110, bringing her income to $13,822.
The federal food stamp program provides $1,952. Mississippi pays up to $40 a week for transportation, for $2,080 more, and child care subsidies average $2,000, for a total of $19,854.
"The question is, can someone survive better on $20,000 a year or sitting at home watching TV for $5,220," he says.
'You should work'
Shirley Williams, 28, earns $5 an hour as a cashier at a Target store in Jackson. She says she has years of work experience and still doesn't earn enough to support her son, Omari, 3.
"If you're able to work," Williams says, "I think you should work."
Now, as one of the working poor, she qualifies for Medicaid and $115 a month in food stamps, she says. Her son is asthmatic and requires frequent medication, so Medicaid is vital.
She is often offered overtime but has to turn it down because a few dollars would put her over the income levels to qualify for Medicaid -- without earning enough to pay for insurance or medicines.
Warren Yoder, director of Jackson's Operation Shoestring, which provides services for children and families, can't imagine how, with a high school education, Williams can find a job paying much more.
"Shirley would like to be a licensed practical nurse, but she can't get into any program," he says.
"Until she gets a job like that, she can't escape poverty."
Edin, the Rutgers sociologist, recommends improving job training, as Minnesota has done by offering two-year vocational training at technical colleges.
The programs are dropped if they fail to place 60 percent of graduates in jobs paying $8 an hour or more.
But such programs, which offer intensive training and support in getting and keeping a job, are expensive.
And today, most governments aren't in the mood to invest more money in the welfare system.
Larry Temple argues that Mississippi has already done what needs to be done -- it has changed the philosophical basis of welfare.
"Now it better be your last resort," Temple says. "I'm not sure it always was."
Pub Date: 12/01/96