THE first solid evidence is in that a new federal approach to welfare begun in 1988 - to educate and put recipients back on the job - works.
The validation comes in an analysis of the largest welfare program in the United States to have adopted a welfare-to-work approach, California's Greater Avenues for Independence, or GAIN, program.
In the project's first year of operation under the new federal guidelines, welfare spending fell and participants' earnings increased in as little as 12 months. Longer-term effects are expected to be even greater.
"This is the first clear indication that a program with strong emphasis on basic education can also show significant impacts on employment and earnings the first year," says Mark Greenberg, senior staff attorney at the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy.
The news is expected to fuel fresh support in dozens of states to participate more fully in the federal JOBS program (Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training), the centerpiece of the sweeping 1988 Family Support Act. The federal program provides up to $1 billion annually for state welfare-to-work initiatives. Only 60 percent of those funds, offered as matching grants, are currently being used.
Released today by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), in New York City, the study included 33,000 welfare recipients in six California counties covering about half the state's welfare population from mid-1988 to 1990.
Although results varied by county, MDRC found that single parents (mostly mothers) in GAIN earned 17 percent more on average than members of a control group. The GAIN group also received 5 percent less in welfare payments during the same period.
Individual counties showed even better gains than the overall figures, which were kept low by first-year averages. In Riverside County, for instance, the average earnings for single parents increased 65 percent and welfare payments dropped by 12 percent.
The program operates in more than 58 counties under the supervision of the State Department of Social Services.
Activities include job-seeking assistance; basic education (general education, adult basic, and English-as-second-language); occupational-skills training; on-the-job training; and preemployment preparation. California has spent nearly $115 million since 1989 in GAIN. It's gotten back $3 for every $2 invested.
GAIN is a mandatory participation program with a strong emphasis on education. Recipients who fail to participate without good cause in GAIN's services can have their welfare grants reduced or terminated.
Nationwide, cries for welfare reform have been amplified in recent years by recession-strapped states scrambling to minimize growing budget deficits. As incentives for recipients to stay off welfare roles, New Jersey, California, and Wisconsin want to limit funding to welfare-dependent families who have more children. Mississippi and Tennessee have put forth plans to withdraw money to families whose children have low grade averages. Other state plans reward mothers using Norplant birth control, fathers who get vasectomies, and families whose children have good school attendance. Helps even long-term recipients
"This study suggests that those states are barking up the wrong tree," says Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"They are trotting out ideas to change behavior that are untested. But here we have the facts to show something works," he says.
Experts also said the study showed favorable results for two groups previously unhelped by welfare initiatives: long-term recipients and two-parent families. But they forward two cautions: Income gains were too small to lift families out of poverty; and other programs such as wage supplements or earned income credits might be necessary for welfare families facing huge expenditures such as health care.
"Cost is also a big factor," notes Catherine Camacho, assistant secretary for fiscal affairs at the California Health and Welfare Agency (HWA). "A lot of states just don't have the money now."
With reform bills in the California Legislature that would cut some welfare benefits by 25 percent as a work incentive, the administration of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson is guarding its optimism about the report. "The administration will sponsor GAIN reforms that would allow counties to have more flexibility [in providing services]," says HWA Secretary Russell Gould. Banging down the doors
Karen Mason, 39, an eight-year recipient of Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) from Manhattan Beach, says she entered Los Angeles county's mandatory GAIN program against her will in 1989, but that it has changed her life.
"It forced me into doing a lot of things I wouldn't have done on my own," says the mother of three, recounting aptitude appraisals and training in computers.
"But it gave me back my self-respect so I could go forward." She has now replaced her $830-per-month welfare check with a $19,000 annual salary.
"At first, most participants resist the idea," notes Paula Litt, regional administrator for GAIN. "Now the word is out how good it is and people are banging on the door to get in."