Washington Post, August 3, 2008: Va. Stretches to Help Workers Make Transition From Welfare

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By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008; C01

When Tonya King got off welfare in January and started working as an adult day-care provider for $9 an hour, she knew making ends meet would be tough.

A few months later, her expectations were confirmed: Her monthly paycheck barely covers her $700 rent and $235 in child care for her two sons. Utilities and other essentials are squeezed out of what’s left, with a little help from her parents. She receives food stamps and is on a payment plan with the electric company, but she still finds herself in a hole every 30 days.

“This job is a blessing,” said King, 33, of suburban Richmond, who was on welfare for six months. “I would never want to go back on welfare. I believe in working. But I look at my bills and I look at how I was doing when I was getting help, and I can’t help but notice that there isn’t much difference.”

The state gives King and other recent welfare recipients $50 a month for a year to help them with the transition. The stipend is only available if clients maintain employment. “Hey, every little bit helps,” said King, who also is seeking child support from her ex-husband.

The cash benefit is one of several efforts that Virginia and other states are using to address the hardships recently discharged welfare clients face.

“We recognize that it’s a small stipend, but it’s something to help adjust to life in the workforce,” said Tom Steinhauser, director of benefit programs for the Virginia Department of Social Services. “We realize it’s not an easy transition.”

Recognizing that the early days off welfare are some of the most financially shaky for recipients — most of whom join the ranks of the working poor — states are looking for ways to support the new workers and keep them from returning to the rolls. Virginia, for example, has expanded a program that trains clients as certified nursing assistants. The goal is to get former recipients into jobs that have clearly defined career paths and higher wages. The state also is considering a rule change that would allow people to return to welfare for a short time if they lose a job through no fault of their own.

Virginia had 28,535 welfare cases in June, about the same number as June 2007.

Helping recipients return to the workforce has been part of the program since welfare reform was passed by Congress nearly a dozen years ago. Federal and state governments also have allocated money for food stamps and subsidized health care and child care for former recipients, although many of the programs have failed to keep pace with inflation.

States are stepping up their efforts, however, because of tighter work rules approved by Congress in 2006. The rules have been phased in over the past two years, and it is crunch time for states. Virginia has pursued broadening work opportunities and monthly cash payments; other states offer gas cards, gift cards to big-box retailers and transit fare, hoping to ensure that recipients can get to work. Maryland helps some clients, particularly those in rural areas, buy donated used cars. States use federal welfare money to pay for the incentive programs.

Although many advocates for welfare recipients applaud the enhancements, they point out that it is in states’ best interest to keep people working.

“They are considering what people are going through once they get off welfare, but I think they are most concerned about not being penalized,” said Ty Jones, a staff attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Indeed, the federal penalties can be steep. Kevin McGuire, who administers Maryland’s welfare program, said that if the state fails to meet federal targets for getting recipients into jobs, it could be docked about $30 million, about 10 percent of its federal welfare grant.

McGuire said the federal rule changes more strictly define what jobs can be considered acceptable work. States have appealed to federal authorities since the law was passed, saying that the rules were particularly hard on disabled recipients, but when the final phase of rules was released this year, authorities had largely kept the changes intact.

The rules have “put us in a tough position, but programs like the ones we’re starting are a win-win for everybody,” he said. “They get to work, and we get to keep them off of welfare and included in our work participation rates.”

Last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ranked Virginia best in the nation for moving welfare clients into permanent jobs during fiscal 2005 and 2006. Virginia also had the second highest job retention rate for former aid recipients in the country each of those years.

Federal officials said they have not analyzed Virginia’s programs to determine what has made the state so successful, but in the past the state has been credited for quickly complying with federal rules. These efforts enabled the state to move 46 to 48 percent of its clients into full-time jobs during fiscal 2005 and 2006, when the national average was about 34 percent. Meanwhile, the retention rate for former recipients in the workforce in 2006 was 72 percent, compared with the national average of 64 percent

But Virginia officials said that despite their success in moving people off welfare, they are concerned about what happens afterward. The expanded nursing assistant program is one way they are trying to ensure clients’ success. Since the expansion last year, almost 450 former recipients have graduated from the project. About 100 more are enrolled.

“These are jobs that can lead to something more, potentially a career in the health profession,” said Marilyn Tavenner, secretary of Health and Human Resources.

For King, efforts to broaden job training and opportunities couldn’t come soon enough. She knows she will have to go back to school to increase her earning potential to support her sons Denver, 7, and David, 4. “Welfare was never going to be a way of life for me,” she said. “And anything I can do and the state can do to help me stay off is better for me and everybody else.”

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