Is job training next for the war on poverty?

As Congress works on legislation, some people look at programs like Training Inc.

Two years ago, LaTarsha Ross had hit rock bottom. Her job in child care, whose pay was already insufficient to live on, had proved too difficult during pregnancy. She found herself on public assistance, barely supporting herself and her newborn son.

"I had to do everything possible to make ends meet," she says ruefully. "I just didn't want to be in that position anymore."

Today, Ms. Ross is on top of the world. She's a patient-access representative at the Boston Medical Center, makes $26,000 a year, gets full benefits, and enjoys her work. She can't say enough about the responsibility and independence her newfound career has given her.

The route from welfare to work, for Ross, was clear: Job training made it happen.

But, as Congress works through renewal of its landmark 1996 welfare overhaul, job training is the object of great debate. One side considers a job as the No. 1 priority, the other considers a good job – in which training is key to pay and longevity – the No. 1 priority. The debate isn't over getting people off welfare – it's how best to get them into the kinds of jobs that will help them escape poverty.

The 1996 reforms and the booming economy cut welfare rolls by more than half. Most of those former recipients are earning more than they got from welfare, but not enough to move up the economic ladder.

Last week, the House passed a bill that follows the Bush administration stance of pressing states for tougher work requirements, such as a mandate for 40 hours a week of work for welfare recipients. A more moderate version of the bill working its way through the Senate would give states more power to count education and training as "work."

"It isn't hard to get people off the welfare rolls, particularly in a good economy. It's especially easy if we don't care where they end up," says Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) of California. "If we want people to go from welfare to self-sufficiency, then we have to work a little harder."

That next step – moving up the economic ladder – was the one Ross took. Though most experts are wary of prescribing any one-size-fits-all solution, the program that gave Ross stability – Training Inc. – is considered a model for keeping former welfare recipients out of poverty.

The five months of 8-to-4 training, workplace simulation, and an unpaid internship at a marketing firm allowed Ross to enter the job market with professional skills, computer literacy, and a solid résumé.

In Boston last year, 95 percent of Training Inc. graduates landed jobs, 98 percent of those jobs came with full benefits, and the average wage was more than $11 per hour. Graduates have about a 90 percent job-retention rate.

But it's not the only organization with such impressive numbers, says Christin Driscoll of Workforce Alliance, a job-readiness advocacy group in Washington. Programs are in place, but the key is getting the neediest citizens, such as welfare moms, access to them.

That lack of access is the cause of much frustration for Elsa Bengel, executive director of Training Inc. Boston. For years, about 80 percent of her students were welfare recipients, she says, but under the work-first focus of welfare reform, caseworkers were reluctant to refer recipients to a lengthy training program. Now, only 10 percent of her students are welfare recipients. The rest are recent immigrants, low-wage workers, or people recently laid off from low-wage work.

State laws related to welfare vary significantly, and in some other Training Inc. locations, nearly all the students are welfare recipients. But people like Ms. Bengel are lobbying hard for the next round of laws to remove a 30 percent cap on the portion of a state's welfare roll that can receive training, and to allow more flexibility in activities that count toward the work requirement.

At Training Inc., students put in a 40-hour week. After an initial six or seven weeks of training, everyone applies for a "job" in a simulated company. At the organization's headquarters in the heart of Boston's financial district, a couple rooms are devoted to the fictional "Lester Hill Corporation," in which students fill positions ranging from warehouse clerk to general manager.

"We're very focused on employability," says Bengel. "We pay a lot of rent to be downtown in the financial district so people can learn their way around and get comfortable here.... Part of our strategy to get to living-wage jobs is to partner with the best companies, and to help the employers recognize the capacity and ability of our graduates."

At graduation two weeks ago, Migdalia DeJesus was so nervous before her speech that she could hardly eat her chicken penne. But when she finally stood up and told the room how low her self-esteem once was, she beamed as she listed her accomplishments.

Graduates often emphasize the personal as well as professional ways the program has helped them. When Giselle Martinez enrolled in the Newark, N.J., program, for example, she was on welfare and barely 20 years old, with a new baby, an abusive relationship, and a cocaine problem. Staff at Training Inc., she says, not only taught her job skills, but also helped her through a tough custody battle and urged her to address the domestic-violence issues. Now an administrative assistant at the Newark Alliance, she is supporting herself and her daughter and talking about going to college at night.

"Anyone who says all people need is a good attitude and to show up – that's a lie," Bengel says. "People have to have skills, and they have to have their life managed so they can get to work on time, so they can concentrate on work when they get there."

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