How Missouri Shifts People From Welfare to Workplace

WHEN Raymond Bailey went to apply for food stamps this fall, he ended up with a job instead.

"I was in desperate need," says Mr. Bailey, who showed up at the storefront welfare office in Sedalia, Mo., after being out of work for five weeks. "I went [for the job interview] that day and was working three days later."

Rather than sitting at home collecting a government check, Bailey now sits behind stacks of blue denim operating a machine that sews hip pockets on Levi jeans.

His quick return to the work force is part of a bold welfare-to-work experiment in Pettis County, Mo., that may be a model for other states looking to the private sector to play a more active role in welfare reform.

As Congress and President Clinton bicker about the details of revamping welfare, many states are already searching for new partners in the delicate dance of moving people off the dole and into jobs. In this era of more self-reliance, many Republicans and conservatives are increasingly pushing the idea that as government shrinks, churches, nonprofit organizations, and corporate America will have to play a bigger role in fighting poverty.

For companies, that will mean a willingness to hire - and even recruit - welfare recipients as workers. Whether enough private-sector jobs are available is one of the dominant questions underlying the new reforms in Washington and in many states.

Here in Missouri, officials are trying to foster a tighter relationship between business and government as they move people from public assistance to work. The experiment highlights some of the problems and promise of the new age of reform.

The program is based on a simple premise: a marriage between companies that need workers and welfare recipients who need jobs. "And it doesn't cost the taxpayers a dime," says James Mathewson, president pro tem of the Missouri State Senate.

The Pettis County partnership began last May after a Tyson Foods chicken-processing plant opened near Sedalia. Senator Mathewson, who represents the district, heard that the company needed more workers than it could find.

Without much fanfare, the welfare office began referring people who are required to find work directly to Tyson Foods. Under federal law, recipients who have children under six or do not have transportation are exempt from work requirements.

In August, several other employers joined the program, including J.A. Lamy Manufacturing, which contracts with Levi Strauss to make blue jeans, a pressed metals processor, and a nursing home.

One impetus for the program is clearly the anticipated changes in federal welfare legislation. Time limits on welfare are coming, Mathewson says. "I don't think there's any question about that."

Caseworkers in the Sedalia office are advising their clients that they are better off getting jobs now rather waiting until the new, two-year limits go into effect nationwide. "There are better jobs out there now than there will be in the future," says caseworker Elizabeth Hunter.

Strong economy

Before this program began, work-eligible welfare applicants in Pettis County were sent to the employment office for a job search, a process that could drag on for three to six months. Now job seekers go directly to employers and can be working in days - as long as there are jobs available.

"You have to have a strong economy, and we have that now in the state of Missouri," Mathewson says. "And you have to have a company that is willing to cooperate and receive direct referrals."

Pettis County's current economic climate is ideal for this kind of welfare-to-work experiment. "When we first opened this facility, the unemployment rate in our recruitment area was 8.2 percent," says Marvin Gerlach, personnel manager at Tyson Foods. "Now it's around 4 percent."

Tyson currently employs 1,200 people and expects to hire about 500 more during the next year. "A year from now, every employer in town is going to be recruiting workers," Mr. Gerlach predicts.

The Tyson case also shows the limitations of the Missouri experiment. Because of the healthy job market, many welfare referrals have chosen to take jobs elsewhere. Mathewson says that of173 people referred to Tyson, 51 are working. But only 12 are employed by Tyson.

Some found jobs elsewhere. Another 30 saw their benefits cut because they refused jobs offered or failed to show up for their interviews.

"Once they realize that the responsibility rests with them, they understand that they have to make a choice," says Linda Messenger, director of the Pettis County Division of Family Services. "Maybe they get another job or do something else. As far as we're concerned, that's still a success."

Only about half of the people who are referred for interviews actually show up. Some work one day and never return. "People complain that it's too cold in here or it doesn't smell too good," says one Tyson worker. "But that's part of working."

Pettis County officials are hailing their welfare-to-work program as a success. But they also are learning how difficult it can be to move people into long-term jobs. "People go on welfare one family at a time. And they're going to come off one family at a time," Mathewson says. "You can't shotgun this process."

Of the 37 people referred to the Lamy blue-jeans factory, only four are now on the job. Many left after a few days work. But Stafford Swearingen, vice president of operations, finds it worthwhile to participate in the Pettis County initiative.

"I'm always looking for new avenues in which to find people that will become assets to this company," he says. "Would I have found these four people without the program? Who's to know."

Changing attitudes

No one expects welfare reform to be easy; there is only so much a business-government partnership can achieve. "It's a matter of changing peoples' attitudes toward welfare and their work ethics," Mr. Swearingen says. "A lot of people want something for nothing and feel they are owed something."

Tyson executives share that perspective. "The politicians are going to have to deal with people who don't want to work," Gerlach says.

Another obstacle is that not all companies are willing to invest in workers with a spotty work history. "Corporations have to change their attitudes as much as the individual [welfare] recipients have to change," Mathewson says.

Lawrence Mead, a welfare expert at Princeton University, warns against the administrative requirements of a government-business partnership becoming too cumbersome."

Employers often don't want to have anything to do with welfare officially," he says. "They don't want to know or care that a person is on welfare. They just want to know whether they are a good employee or not."

Gerlach agrees: "We have not treated these people any differently. They are just a job applicant to us."

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