WASHINGTON — Every work day, Carolyn Jones climbs into a van near her east Baltimore apartment, pays $2, and heads off to her job as a nurse's aide in Columbia, Md., 40 minutes away.
A few months ago, Ms. Jones wasn't going anywhere. Fresh out of drug rehabilitation, she couldn't find a job in her field, despite 25 years' experience.
Then she stumbled on Bridges to Work, a pilot program offered by five cities that makes the crucial link between the people who need jobs - the urban poor - and suburban businesses, where the vast majority of new lower-paying jobs are being created.
The Clinton administration is ready to expand Bridges in a big way. The question is whether the program is ready for nationwide expansion.
Bridges is more than just a "reverse commute" program. Jones and other participants began by getting counseling that prepared them for the world of work, then help locating job openings, rides to interviews, and when they landed jobs, cheap rides to and from work. Follow-up counseling keeps them on track. In Jones's case, having a job counselor vouch for her recovery from drugs made all the difference.
"You could have a van to drop people off at the gate and that's not going to produce lasting jobs," says Mike Stegman, an assistant secretary at (HUD) the program's sponsor..
President Clinton's focus this week on urban policy has put the spotlight on recent innovations. But the question is whether a small project such as Bridges can work on a big scale - an increasingly important issue as welfare recipients are required to find jobs. Bridges organizers may soon find out.
The Clinton administration has proposed expanding Bridges, to the tune of $600 million over six years for a city-to-suburb commuter program run out of the Department of Transportation. In addition, a number of states are planning their own program, including vouchers and van pools for the urban poor to get to jobs in the suburbs.
The five Bridges experiments - a four-year, $17 million project launched late last year in Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, and St. Louis - currently have a total of 170 people enrolled. Soon they will begin the research phase, when they determine which programs work best, how many people will use the service, and whether the bus routes are financially viable.
But some supporters of Bridges are concerned that it's too soon to expand the program dramatically without having made conclusions about its effectiveness.
"We don't know enough to know that this ought to become this big state and federal program," says a former HUD official.
He compares the administration's plan to welfare reform, which was proceeding slowly in localized pilot projects until Washington decided last year to change the system nationwide, before research had determined which ideas worked.
Mr. Stegman at HUD isn't worried. He points to the economy and says now is the time to strike: The suburban unemployment rate is at a historic low - under 3 percent in more than 20 suburban regions.
The plan is to use the federal funds as seed money for 100 to 200 more small projects that would develop - as the five pilot cities have - partnerships with community-based organizations and businesses.
After about two years of preparation, the five pilot projects are still evolving as needs become clear. Most offer participants some form of assistance with extended child care, which they need because of the longer commuting time.
Still, reverse-commuting isn't for everyone. Some inner-city minorities are concerned that they won't feel at home in a whiter, suburban setting. But other participants prioritize the better wages, benefits, and career advancement available in the suburbs.
Ms. Jones, the nurse's aide, is working full-time at $7 an hour, with health benefits. Her current employer, the Lorien Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, will help her continue her education so she can eventually become a registered nurse.
Will Bridges have the effect of giving people the financial resources to move out of the city - leaving poor neighborhoods even poorer? Not necessarily.
A worker who wants to own a home can do so a lot sooner in urban areas.
In the inner-city, houses that go for $40,000 to $60,000 sell for $150,000 or more in the suburbs. But even if commuters do move, according to officials, that's OK.
"You never want to have a policy that reduces mobility," says Stegman. Besides, he adds, people may well decide to stay where they are, near family and friends, and help rebuild their neighborhoods.
Federal data illustrate the movement of jobs and middle-income families from cities to the suburbs.
* For every middle- or high-income person who moves into a major city, 3 to 4 move out.
* In 1970, suburbs housed 25 percent more families than cities did. Today, suburbs house 75 percent more families than do cities.
* From 1990 to 1993, 97 percent of new businesses were created in the suburbs as were 87 percent of all new lower-paying jobs.
* From 1970 to 1993, the central-city poverty rate increased 50 percent.
Source: US Department of Housing and Urban Development.