How Ricky Mozee Traded His Welfare Check for a Paycheck

Ricky Mozee could be the poster child for welfare reform.

Three years ago, he was a drug and alcohol abuser on welfare living in the tough streets of Anacostia, a Washington neighborhood where unemployment hovers at 84 percent and nearly 3 out of every 4 households are headed by single mothers.

Today, he is a supervisor at a telecommunications company, owns a house in suburban Maryland, and supports a wife and three children.

What turned Mozee's life around was Capital Commitment, a privately funded program that trains the unemployed to be telephone installers.

In a new era of welfare, the five-year-old project is seen by many as a model for how communities can help those on public assistance make the transition to self-sufficiency.

"The success of the program comes from the corporate involvement," says Mozee, now a self-described liberal Republican. "I really believe if government was involved they would mess everything up."

When President Clinton signs welfare reform into law this week, a six-decade guarantee of federal aid to the poor will end. Recipients will be required to find work after two years on the dole or lose their benefits. After five years, they're off the rolls permanently.

The reforms are risky. They make finding work urgent for recipients and the states, which under the new law face gradually stiffer penalties if they fail to move a sufficient percentage of their welfare cases into work. Most states will find the task difficult. It takes huge investments to move unskilled people into jobs, and the entry-level labor market is competitive. In inner-city America, the ratio of applicants to bottom-rung jobs can be as high as 14 to 1.

Programs like Capital Commitment may prove to be the crucial link between success and failure of the new approach to welfare.

"The overhaul will mean more programs like Capital Commitment will spring up all over the country," says Doug Besharov, a welfare expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute here. "Federal funding of job-training programs has been a straightjacket and has impeded any type of innovation. Companies will be more likely to get involved now that many of these rules will disappear."

Indeed, businesses offering job training and job-placement services are blossoming cottage industry, offering to teach welfare recipients data processing, dry cleaning, and lawn care. One of the oldest of such firms, New York-based America Works, claims to have found jobs for 10,000 welfare recipients over the last 12 years.

Capital Commitment was founded by Ernest Boykin and his wife, Laverne, former employees of Sprint and MCI, respectively. One day, they quit their jobs and turned their talents on their community.

"After getting some work space in a former elementary school, we went to the various telecommunications companies in the D.C. area and said, 'What are your needs for entry-level technicians, and what does your training program look like?' " Mr. Boykin recalls. "The responses we got were overwhelming."

Northern Telecom donated $800,000 worth of equipment, Bell Atlantic pledged to find work for the program's graduates, and the Communications Workers of America provided some of its union members to act as teachers. In just five years, Capital Commitment has moved 424 students into the work force. Graduates often have several job offers from which to choose, and starting salaries average $22,000. Some 98 percent are still employed in the telecommunications industry.

THE success rate is impressive, but there is reason for caution. The Boykins don't take everyone into their program. Applicants must be skilled in math and reading at the 10th-grade level and drug-free. The screening process involves three interviews per applicant.

Once accepted, students follow strict participation rules. Three absences or two tardies are grounds for dismissal. About 30 percent don't make it to graduation day.

That selectivity may make the program unsuitable for large-scale application, critics say. Some question who will provide for those who can't make the cut if job training is pushed to the private sector.

But with the word spreading about the program's success, Mr. Boykin expects there to be an even greater need in the future for programs such as his. "There's no reason in the world why we can't do this in every inner-city in America," he says. "It lifts up a community, it gives people a feeling of self-worth, and it creates good corporate citizens."

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