Reforming the Providers

Much discussion of welfare reform has revolved around the need to help welfare recipients develop the independence and initiative required to find and hold jobs.

But there's another side to this process: getting the providers of public assistance to think in different terms about what they do.

Increasingly, the state and federal administrators responsible for welfare reform are recognizing that the success of their plans depends significantly on the active collaboration of thousands of public employees who have spent years simply checking eligibility.

The reform launched last year in Washington demands the opposite: helping people get off assistance, not on it.

Ingrained bureaucratic routines don't change quickly. But change is possible, as reform efforts in some parts of the country are showing.

In Montgomery County, Ohio, for instance, human-services officials are dropping the "Welfare Department" tag altogether. This June they're planning to start business anew as the Montgomery County Job Center.

The center will accommodate anyone who needs placement, training, or even drug-abuse counseling. Cash assistance will be available too, and staff will be given added discretion to direct clients and determine eligibility. A key, according to county human-services chief Steve Rice, is that every client will be treated with respect.

The traditional public-assistance office - a drab waiting room with staff behind counters, often protected by bullet-proof glass - exuded coldness and lack of respect. The Success program in San Mateo County, Calif., just south of San Francisco, is attempting to reverse that image. Clients find a waiting area with easy chairs, upbeat posters, and easily accessible staff. The program zeroes in on finding jobs for people as promptly as possible, and it has made notable gains, increasing the number of placed people to more than 1,400 last fiscal year, up from 108 in 1993, the year before the county mapped out its new direction.

A few hopeful examples don't make a welfare revolution. They're part of a bigger picture that has to include, indispensably, determined efforts to create jobs locally or help people get to areas - usually suburban - where job openings exist.

But what's being done in Montgomery County, San Mateo County, and other localities hints that, given committed leadership, bureaucratic cultures can change.

Welfare-to-work won't be easy to implement anywhere. But it will have a much brighter future if the providers, as well as the beneficiaries, sign on.

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