It's the 1990s - the Era of the Tight Fist - when downsizing businesses and a fiscally strapped federal government are too pressed to lend the needy a helping hand.
Don't tell that to Dawn Runge.
She is off the dole.
A single mother and former public-aid recipient, she now earns a steady wage and generous benefits, and she has overcome a bleak period that began with a sudden lay-off and desertion by the father of her eight-month-old daughter.
Ms. Runge works the phones for United Airlines, taking reservations in a sprawling office near Chicago.
She is one of the early success stories in a new, public-private program that offers jobs to people on welfare.
"I was devastated because I was brought up in a home where you don't even joke about welfare. As long as you have two hands and two feet, you go out and work," she says.
"Now that I'm off public aid, I'm ... proud," she says above the murmur of other reservation agents.
Breaking cycle of dependence
Like Runge, thousands of welfare recipients nationally are becoming self-sufficient through welfare-to-work partnerships between companies and state and county governments.
The programs offer a rare foothold for millions who stand to lose their benefits in the most sweeping shake up of the welfare system since the New Deal.
Washington, last year, cut welfare funding, set time limits on aid, and handed much of its control to state governments.
But those same federal officials also sponsored the turnaround for Runge.
Since February the Clinton administration has drawn several large corporations into a program to put 1 million welfare recipients to work in the next four years.
The Welfare to Work Partnership underscores both the opportunities and problems of the welfare overhaul.
It presents new opportunities to both business and the needy. It also thrusts millions of poor into the hands of fledgling programs and unprepared state welfare officials.
"What Clinton is saying to business is not at the heart of welfare reform. It is a cosmetic, well intentioned effort to create work opportunities, but it's not the fundamental reform needed," says Lawrence Mead, a political science professor at New York University.
The bonus for business is clear: a public relations bonanza, a way to ride the nation's growing economy, and continued cheap labor.
The economy is now strong enough to start creating labor shortages, which would normally force companies to pay higher wages.
But welfare-to-work gives them access to a pool of motivated, low-wage, less-skilled workers. That keeps wage inflation to a minimum, which in turn helps keep interest rates low and profits high.
"The economy is right, and the overall sense of political responsibility and unity is in place," says Eli Segal, president of the Welfare to Work Partnership in Washington.
Only a marginal help?
But without a fundamental revamp of state- and county-level agencies, say experts, welfare-to-work partnerships will only marginally reduce the ranks of the jobless poor.
Thousands of job openings won't help if the needy do not take the jobs, say experts. And even if the program hits the target of 1 million workers, that represents about a third of welfare recipients who could work.
Proponents must also convince potential bosses that most welfare recipients are eager to stop taking handouts. Welfare experts say this is the case, despite the prevailing stereotype (see story, right).
"We haven't noticed any difference in job performance" between former welfare recipients and other workers, says John Samolis, a vice president for personnel at United.
But the partnership also suggests the limits of what corporations can do. So far, it has enlisted 105 companies, a fraction of the national business community.
The program is largely a bully pulpit, using praise and other incentives to orient corporations toward the needy. Private enterprise provides most of the dollars, although President Clinton recently announced federal grants to 24 states for such programs.
United is one of five companies leading the job drive. It has hired 55 former welfare recipients and plans to bring on a total of 2,000 by the year 2000. The other lead companies are Burger King, Monsanto, Sprint, and United Parcel Service of America.
How United's program works
The airline seeks welfare recipients by canvassing community groups and employment offices in low-income neighborhoods. A candidate who passes normal standards might be hired to handle baggage, check-in customers, clean aircraft, perform clerical work, or take phone reservations. Each welfare hire is assigned a mentor who helps with issues such as transportation, child care, dress, and work habits.
"I've been very impressed by folks who have to get up at 5:30 in the morning and catch three buses," says Mr. Samolis at United. "To me, the personal resolve has been astounding."
PROGRAM IS SMALL START FOR BIG WELFARE REFORM
The Welfare to Work Partnership, an independent, nonpartisan effort led by five major corporations:
* Has no regulatory teeth and not much in the way of incentives, but seeks to cajole business into hiring welfare recipients without displacing existing workers.
* Aims to mobilize 1,000 companies by the end of 1997 and help put 1 million welfare recipients to work over four years.
* Plans to issue a manual based on successful welfare-to-work initiatives and partnerships at the grass roots and compile a database of groups that provide child care, training, and similar services.
The program was launched last October by the Clinton administration with strong bipartisan support. It is part of welfare reform legislation that limits welfare benefits and shifts administration responsibilities to states.
The deadline for states to submit their plans is July, and a majority have done so.