Rodney Williams worked as a "hack," or illegal cabbie, cruising through Philadelphia in a beat-up station wagon. He was a hotel bellman and part-time lifeguard. Often he was jobless, relying on the welfare check of the mother of his three children.
Today, however, Mr. Williams is on his way to a career in mental health, holding down two jobs in the field while preparing to start college in psychiatric medicine next winter.
"I help people get their lives back on track like I got mine back on track," he says during a break at a Philadelphia mental-health ward where he began work last year. "I really like what I do."
But Williams is not another overnight welfare-to-work success story. Instead, his achievements show the promise of a new, market-oriented anti-poverty strategy that is bucking the trend of welfare reform.
Now being tested in Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle, and a handful of other cities, the strategy is simple: Take advantage of today's robust economy to train the inner-city unemployed and welfare population for better-paying, higher skill jobs available from regional employers.
These longer-term jobs initiatives are emerging as one alternative to the quick-hit "work first" programs that most states have embraced as a prime strategy in transforming America's welfare system. They reflect an expectation that better - and more costly - training up front will pay off later in workers who stay off welfare, keep jobs longer, and independently support their families.
"If you just focus on quick entry-level jobs, you aren't focused on ... the strategic needs of employers," says John Colborn of the Philadelphia Jobs Initiative, the program that helped Williams, as he drives down a rutted, cobblestone street northwest of the city.
While it's too soon to know if these initiatives will succeed, there is some indication that the work-first approach is bogging down in cities, where entrenched welfare populations tend to reside. Highly publicized declines in state welfare caseloads - 31 percent on average since 1993 - have masked the fact that the rolls have decreased far more slowly in large cities such as Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, analysts say.
For example in Wisconsin, an early pioneer in welfare-to-work experiments that printed its last welfare check March 2, state welfare rolls fell 44 percent from 1986 to 1996. In Milwaukee County, though, they fell only 19 percent, according to Kate Carnevale, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But states, working under a deadline to move people off welfare and into jobs, by and large have adopted a work-first approach that stresses minimal training and entry-level positions (see story, right). Under the 1996 federal welfare act, states must ensure that 30 percent of their welfare populations shift into work this year and 50 percent in 2002 - or face cuts in federal block grants.
Critics contend that the limited training and support may backfire, especially if the economy ratchets down. "There is very serious concern that we will wake up and find that people have neither the skills nor supports to retain their jobs or move up the ladder," says Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at Brookings.
The Clinton administration last month indicated it recognizes the potential pitfalls of a narrow focus on work-first programs. It announced a $1 billion federal bonus to be distributed among states that help welfare recipients not only find jobs, but also hold onto them and earn more. According to new US guidelines, $200 million will be distributed to states each year, beginning this fiscal year.
The emphasis on long-term job success is central to initiatives such as the one here, which strives to build strong connections between impoverished communities and regional labor markets to lift residents out of poverty for good.
"We are focused on what work force Philadelphia needs to compete regionally and internationally," says Mr. Colborn of the Philadelphia Jobs Initiative.
A coalition of businesses, public agencies, and nonprofits, the initiative is part of a $30 million, six-city project by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It is targeting Philadelphia neighborhoods with high joblessness and welfare dependency such as West Oak Lane, where Williams lives. Such neighborhoods have been especially hard hit by Philadelphia's loss of 100,000 jobs - or 13 percent of its total employment - between 1989 and 1995. The welfare population here now stands at roughly 60,000.
Williams's road to a career started last winter in West Oak Lane when he stepped into the storefront office of the Ogantz Avenue Revitalization Corp. (OARC), a nonprofit community development group and a key partner of the Jobs Initiative.
There he met OARC manager Rob Bell, a big, heavy-set man who, like his organization, had been a strong presence in the community for years. "I grew up here," says Mr. Bell, a former policeman. "I know 70 percent of the people who walk in."
Such solid neighborhood connections grew out of OARC's history as a traditional community development organization, providing social services and low-income housing within West Oak Lane. Today, however, OARC is turning outward in a new role with the Jobs Initiative, using its local contacts to recruit and screen thousands of residents for training and job opportunities across Philadelphia.
By acting as post-placement trouble-shooters, community organizations such as OARC can boost job-retention rates. And by gaining the trust of employers, they can offer inner-city residents the same kind of personal jobs network that many middle-class Americans take for granted, says Bennett Harrison, a New York-based expert in urban labor markets and co-author of "Work force Development Networks."
Williams is helping build such a network. OARC helped Williams land jobs after referring him to a 13-week course for mental-health technicians. Now Williams is informally recruiting for OARC.
WHILE well-connected to the inner city, the Jobs Initiative has also fostered close collaboration with Philadelphia-area businesses, whose demand for workers with specific skills drives the project.
One example of this collaboration is Philadelphia Area Accelerated Manufacturing Education (PHAME), a 60-week program that trains participants to fill the region's 2,000 job openings for machinists.
"We desperately need people to work in plants," says Charles Moore, chief operating officer of PHAME, which enrolled its first trainees in September. It recently moved to a newly renovated factory in West Oak Lane not far from OARC, which recruits for PHAME.
Major regional employers including Boeing, which has a helicopter factory in the area, and Crown Cork and Seal, the world's largest can maker, are lining up for graduates from PHAME, which is planning to recruit 400 new students each year and graduate 200 as full-blown machinists.
"This will become our primary recruiting tool," says Michael Dunleavy, vice president for business development at Crown, a key financial sponsor of PHAME.
"This kind of program can work for a lot of industries," says Crown's chief executive officer, William Avery, in his plush office suite, emphasizing his company's commitment to recruiting from the inner-city jobless. "This discarded group, they are not hopeless. We want to prove that if they work hard, they can have a family-sustaining wage."