Off Welfare and Back to Work
July 3, 2008 · Updated 5:08 PM
"The rallying cry of national political leaders was to end welfare as we know it when they passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act back in 1996. From that point on, the idea of long-term public assistance was over.The cold, hard fact of welfare reform is that families on government assistance have only five years to find and hold a job before benefits run out. The good news is that numerous state and local agencies are now working together to smooth out what can be a rough road from welfare to work.Island County can boast one of the best team efforts in the state according to the agency officials who run the WorkFirst welfare-to-work program here.Historically, agencies have had their turf wars, said Garry Lutz, coordinator for the local Private Industry Council. We don't have that here. Statistics tend to bear that out with more than 90 percent of local welfare families participating in WorkFirst and a better than average success rate in reducing the number of families on what is now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF.It hasn't been easy. Even riding the country's current good economy and low unemployment rate, the realities of welfare make job placement difficult. Most of the people currently receiving cash assistance are single, separated or divorced mothers with limited job training and a poor sense of self worth. Many have no transportation. Some have alcohol or drug problems, have suffered physical or mental abuse and lack a good education.Whidbey's limited job market is also a problem with few new work opportunities and local hourly wages which lag behind the state average. At the same time, the cost of living on Whidbey is relatively high.In Snohomish County, people are finding a livable wage. But here, that's a major problem for us, said Greta Kaas-Lent, administrator for the local office of the state's Department of Social and Health Services.Kaas-Lent estimated that a living wage for a Whidbey family of four would be about $14 per hour. Unfortunately, available local jobs are currently paying about $8 to $9 per hour.While these people may be working ... they are not necessarily self-sufficient, said Kaas-Lent.To overcome the obstacles, 15 local agencies are now working together to offer everything from counseling and education to medical assistance and child care. The system relies heavily on people's willingness to change and on employers willingness to hire them.That wasn't a problem for either Rita LaBelle and her new employer Steve Metcalfe.BACK TO WORKI had an embarrassment block about going on assistance, LaBelle said. But my unemployment had run out and I needed medical insurance for my kids.Under WorkFirst guidelines, Labelle had to either work, look for work or prepare for work. She had once held a job as a theater manager but had grave doubts about her skills to re-enter the workforce.Simple things like writing a resume have changed so much since I had to do it 19 years ago, said LaBelle. She said she also lacked computer skills - something she knew would hamper her chances at finding work.Kaas-Lent said that, rather than focus on what Temporary Assistance recipients don't know, her agency tries to find out what skills and interests they have.Then we ask how we can translate that into the work environment, she said.The Department of Social and Health Services got Labelle into some basic workplace skills and computer classes paid for by the Private Industry Council. LaBelle said it was hard to admit she needed help.It's very hard. People have a stigma about asking for assistance, she said. They knew I was pretty much tucking my tail to do this.Lutz said some WorkFirst participants have been on assistance for more than a dozen years, so making the move to wage-earner status can be both humbling and frightening.This is a new life for many of these people, he said. Many come from environments where they've been told they're a failure.Kaas-Lent said Temporary Assistance recipients are now very aware that they have to sign up for the WorkFirst program, but many are surprised about how much work they have to do just to get a job. LaBelle said some people resent being forced into classes, while others see them as an opportunity.If you show the enthusiasm and show the interest, they'll really help you. she said.Thanks in part to the training and her own organizational and management skills, LaBelle seemed like a good employment prospect for Steve Metcalfe's Land Title Company in Oak Harbor. Metcalfe said he had gone to the Private Industry Council for employee candidates before and was pleased with the results. He said LaBelle is doing well in her new job and can use it as a career stepping stone.Ideally, said Mike Fitzgerald, a WorkFirst coordinator for Skagit Valley College, WorkFirst will not only prepare people to be employees, but to be employers as well. For a job-scarce community such as Whidbey, creating new employment opportunities may be more important in the long run.A new series of WorkFirst classes at the college will train daycare workers. Graduates of the 10-week class will have training that exceeds state requirements. Seven Temporary Assistance clients are already taking the first set of classes and Fitzgerald said some will eventually be able to start their own businesses because of the urgent need for more childcare providers.Kaas-Lent said making WorkFirst work is an ongoing challenge. During some months, just as many new people enroll in the program as are put to work. But when anyone succeeds, everyone feels good she said. That's especially true for LaBelle.It took my fear away, she said. It's meant everything to me."