Oakland, Calif. — At a Union 76 gas station on a busy corner here, a team of welfare mothers in blue uniforms pumps the gas, wipes the windshields, and checks under the hoods. ''It's fun,'' says Gilletha Williams, one of the mothers, as she waits for another car to pull in.
The gas station and two nearby day-care centers are run by a private, publicly funded agency to provide welfare mothers with temporary work experience before they get permanent jobs on their own.
This kind of two-step approach to employment is one of the few programs in the nation with a documented record of getting even a modest number of able-bodied welfare women onto jobs more frequently - and at higher earnings - than they accomplish themselves, according to researchers.
About 3.4 million women (and 300,000 men) who head households with dependent children receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). This welfare program costs taxpayers $15 billion a year.
Only people with incomes below poverty level (in most states, well below) and with children 18 or younger are eligible for AFDC. In the continental US, payments for a family of four range from $141 a month in Texas to $601 in California. The program was set up and expanded over the years to help provide for children in need. Adults receiving such aid are required to register with their state for employment or training, unless they have children under six years of age or are incapacitated.
Without such help, both the parent and the children might be ''part of the homeless,'' says Thomas Joe, director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington.
Shifting able-bodied welfare recipients to jobs cuts public costs - and can help them to regain dignity.
Programs like the one in Oakland, known as ''supported work,'' have boosted earnings of welfare mothers by $80 a month over what nonparticipants earn. And welfare payments to former participants dropped by about $52 a month compared with those who did not get this kind of job preparation, according to a study of 10 demonstration projects nationwide.
Because welfare checks are reduced when recipients begin to earn more, welfare mothers with low-paying jobs may not be getting ahead much. But more than just money is involved, some of the mothers here said.
Welfare mothers, like anyone else, ''want to feel worthy,'' says Vernel Peel, who also works at the gas station. ''They want to show a role model for their children. They want to have a purpose.''
''The way they come out ahead is the way they feel about themselves,'' says Pearline King, supervisor at one of the day-care centers here.
And sitting at home can get boring. ''There wasn't much to do at home after cleaning and cooking,'' says Cheryl Bowling, an Oakland welfare mother.
Now she, too, is working at one of the day-care centers here. As three- and four-year-olds pedal plastic tricycles furiously past her, or yelp at each other over games, she adds: ''I was ready to work. I had been out looking for a job.''
For mothers who receive AFDC, getting a job is seldom an easy task - especially with 9.4 million other Americans now hoping to find work. Usually, the mothers have little or no employment history, and many never graduated from high school.
Two dozen states require some AFDC recipients to do public-service work without pay. A number of states have started offering special child care, counseling, and some medical assistance. Some states offer special job-hunting assistance or divert part of their welfare checks to employers who hire the recipients on a try-out basis.
However, most of these methods have not been in operation long enough for evaluators to know whether they are effective or not, says Ken Lee, an official with the United States Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the AFDC program.
Supported work has long-term payoffs but is ''extremely expensive,'' says Mr. Lee.
It costs $8,000 to $10,000 to train one participant for one year, says Roy Miramontes, executive director of the Peralta Service Corporation, the nonprofit agency that runs the gas station and the day-care centers. The two child-care centers are attended by children of working parents, not the children of the welfare women who work here.
Women receive personal counseling and are closely supervised on their jobs. About half of the women resign or are fired for poor performance during this period, he says. The welfare mothers who participate in this program come voluntarily to learn work skills.
The supervised phase is a time for the women to learn good work habits, such as punctuality and attendance. It is also a time for them to gain confidence in themselves and their abilities, providing what researchers call a ''bridge'' to employment in the private sector.
''I just got my first paycheck,'' says Jinko Schrimsher, born in Japan and now one of the welfare mothers working at the day-care center. ''I've got my own income; it makes me so happy,'' she adds. She has been on welfare for more than four years. She says she loves working with children.
After about a year of supervision on the subsidized jobs, the women are encouraged to try for nonsubsidized jobs. If needed, the staff will help them find work. Many of the women are reluctant, even afraid, to make the move, says Mr. Miramontes.
But about 80 percent of those who complete the program here get jobs, he says , earning on average $4.50 an hour.
Welfare mother Trina Millian, here at the day-care center, was laid off at a glass company four years ago. She has been getting $408 a month in AFDC payments plus $76 worth of food stamps for herself and her seven-year-old daughter. Rent for her one-bedroom apartment is $250 a month. She and her daughter used to live in a subsidized, public-housing apartment where the rent was $60 a month. But after burglars stole everything in her home, including the bed, she moved to the more expensive apartment, with bars on the windows, in what she hopes is a safer location. Now, after paying rent, food, and utilities, she has little money left.
''Most of the time you don't have enough,'' she said recently, standing outside for playground duty. ''I wonder sometimes if I'm going to make it.''
As one of three children nearby starts to pull on another child, she separates them with a gentle admonition: ''No fighting, OK?''
Now she earns $3.35 an hour and works 40 hours a week under the Peralta program.
But Peralta is paid part of the welfare mothers' AFDC checks and, in turn, gives it back to them as part of their salary.
Roy Miramontes, among others, says cuts in welfare payments are too sharp when recipients first begin work. The rate should be slowed to encourage more people on welfare to get jobs, he says.
Welfare women represent mostly ''talent untapped,'' he says. But cuts in federal training funds are making it harder to tap that talent, he said during an interview. Peralta is training about 110 women a year now, compared with more than 300 just two years ago, says another program official.
A nationwide study of 10 demonstration projects shows that two years after the women complete these programs, they are earning more money and receiving less welfare than nonparticipants. And these results even count those welfare mothers who dropped out before finishing a supported-work program.
The study, published in 1980 by Manpower Demonstration Research Corportion (MDRC) of New York, also found that 42 percent were employed, compared with 35 percent for who did not go into a program.
Twenty-nine percent who enrolled in the program were no longer receiving AFDC at all, compared with 15 percent of the nonparticipants who were off welfare.
Such programs pay for themselves in less than four years, says Craig Thornton of Mathematica Policy Research, which participated in the evaluation. And for every $1,000 in program costs, society gets back about $2,500 in less welfare and in taxes on increased earnings over the lifetime of the participant, he says.
A second study, which looks at participants' wages about two years and nine months after they leave the program, showed a slight decline in earnings and a small increase in welfare over the first study, he says.