Pushed by a job-hungry economy, businesses across the country are recruiting heavily from America's welfare rolls - contributing to a dramatic reduction in the number of people receiving public assistance.
Former recipients are now taking phone reservations at United Airlines, selling appliances at Sears, and serving Big Macs at McDonald's.
Their hiring is part of a fundamental shift in how many of America's welfare recipients are viewed. No longer the "welfare queens" of the 1980s, they're now seen by many corporations and others as citizens with potential - one of the prime goals of welfare reform.
Indeed, two years after the biggest changes in the welfare system since the New Deal, the nation's public-assistance rolls continue to shrink dramatically. Federal figures released this week show that 1.7 million welfare recipients found jobs within the first year after the legislation was signed. Overall, America's welfare rolls have shrunk 27 percent since 1996, to 8.9 million.
While the numbers are being lauded by supporters and even some critics, concerns persist. Some wonder, for instance, what's happened to those who have dropped off welfare rolls but haven't yet found work. There is also concern about whether the country will end up with a hard-core group that will never be employed. Moreover, some statistics show that whites are finding jobs in far greater numbers than minorities - raising concern about a permanent black and Hispanic underclass. "It has been a great way to sort out the people who are really needy," says Toby Herr, who works with welfare recipients in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, of the overall reforms. "But now we're getting down to the tough group."
Yet it's the success stories that are making headlines now. Burger King and United Parcel Service have each hired more than 10,000 former welfare recipients.
Employers often find these workers more reliable than most new employees. United Airlines, for instance, has hired 911 former welfare recipients in the past year, and some 69 percent have stayed. That's much higher than average.
Most employers have been pleased with the new hires. In a survey of 200 mostly small businesses released last week by the Urban Institute in Washington, 70 percent said their welfare-recipient workers had a positive attitude and were reliable. Ninety-four percent said they would hire more in the future.
THE key to success in hiring welfare recipients, observers say, is nonprofit groups or government agencies that do job training, such as Chicago's Project Match. It provides one-on-one counseling for residents of two of the city's toughest public-housing complexes. Counselors do everything from helping clients write a resume to emphasizing the importance of being friendly at work.
Job Network, a new model program in San Francisco, provides employers with welfare recipients who've shown responsibility and a "good" attitude - and who've had six weeks of training. With 40 businesses signed up to take the program's graduates, it can guarantee jobs for those who complete the training.
But even with the strong training, observers say problems persist in hiring welfare recipients: transportation, child care, health care, substance abuse, and literacy.
That's where governments are stepping in, especially as businesses pressure them to respond. States boosted spending on child care by 55 percent between 1996 and 1998, according to the National Governors' Association. They increased job-training funds by 34 percent.
Novel arrangements are springing up, too. Last year, at United's prodding, Chicago's transit authority set up a new bus route from a public-housing development to a United Air Lines reservation center.
But even as the hiring kinks are worked out, a larger challenge looms - getting those still on welfare into jobs. The recipients who've already found employment are considered the most motivated and capable. Those who remain typically have fewer skills, more-intractable drug or health problems, and may face discrimination.
In fact, whites seem to be having an easier time than minorities in leaving welfare roles. Among recipients in New York state, for instance, minorities now outnumber whites for the first time ever, according to The New York Times. Causes range from discrimination to the fact that whites' economic situations may not be as dire as those of minorities.
The problem of the so-called second tier of welfare recipients is well-recognized. President Clinton this week released $60 million to help the group find work. Locally, counselors continue to stress that people can't stay on welfare forever. "Over time if everybody tells you the same thing, it starts to seep in," says Ms. Herr of Project Match, which is affiliated with Chicago's Erikson Institute.
One other concern about the impact of the new reforms comes from doing some simple math: 1.7 million recipients found jobs between 1996 and 1997, while many more went off the rolls.
Researchers aren't sure how those people are surviving. Experts speculate that those unaccounted for may be participants in the "cash economy" - doing everything from mowing lawns to selling drugs. They may also account for the rise in the number of people showing up at homeless shelters.
In the meantime, there is worry that if the economy sours, those in new jobs, as well as others who've fallen off the rolls and haven't found work, could be in trouble.
Still, in the end, corporate America's involvement has opened new opportunities for many recipients, even if their attitude seems driven more by capitalism than socialism. As Charles Alexander, regional human resources manager for McDonald's restaurants in New Orleans, puts it: "It's not a social issue, it's a business issue. We need employable people, so we'll do what we can to make sure we can find them."