Roanoke Times, August 8, 2008: Editorial: Beyond working poor

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Virginia’s trying to bolster its stellar efforts at getting people off welfare by helping them to get out of poverty, too.

The added emphasis is slight and late, but necessary if the Department of Social Services wants to facilitate the second half of its stated goal in administering the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program: “to enable welfare (i.e. TANF) recipients to leave the rolls and become self-reliant.”

For welfare recipients, joining the work force too often means joining the swollen ranks of the working poor.

And no matter how hard-working, the working poor can find it nearly impossible to be self-reliant. Those with children often cannot work without child care subsidies, and their jobs either offer no health benefit or offer it at a price they cannot afford. So if their children have coverage, it is on the taxpayers’ tab, too. Their own ailments are likely to go untreated unless they reach a crisis stage.

Now, higher fuel prices have met stagnant wages to create a new scourge on already tight budgets, leaving families struggling to pay for three essentials: transportation, food and utilities.

Far from having a financial cushion to see them through hard times such as the current economic downturn, a new nationwide poll finds that many low-wage workers actually have spent savings or cashed out retirement funds just to make ends meet.

The lesson: Families whose bread-winners go from TANF to low-paying, low-skill jobs and stay there will remain needy. They could even land back on the welfare rolls, if their benefits haven’t run out.

The too easily neglected aim of welfare reform is to get people on the road to self-sufficiency, which means into a job with prospects: the prospect of advancing to something more than a subsistence wage; the prospect of climbing a career ladder.

The Washington Post reports that Virginia has expanded a program to train people making the welfare-to-work transition as certified nursing assistants. The state also is giving clients a $50-a-month stipend during their first year if they remain employed.

Neither will rocket anyone into the middle class, but they might provide a critical boost.

CNAs are among those essential workers who simply are not paid what their work, when done well, is truly worth. As a health care job, though, at least it can put people on a path to more skilled, higher paying employment.

That should be the goal of welfare-to-work programs.

Virginia not only ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2005 and 2006 for moving TANF clients into permanent jobs, those workers held the second highest job retention rate.

Some people will cadge any system, but most able-bodied people want to work and support themselves and their families. That takes more than hard work. It takes hard work that pays a living wage.

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