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Welfare-to-Work May Fall Short For Most in Va.

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 1997; Page A01

FREDERICKSBURG, Va., Nov. 21óMost of the first 40 families that Virginia pushed off welfare and into jobs seem destined to fall back into poverty when special benefits they received during the transition run out next year, according to a legislative report released here today.

Unless they get jobs that pay more than the ones they hold now, about 80 percent of those households in the region that includes Fauquier and Culpeper counties – where the welfare-to-work overhaul first was tested in 1995 – once again will be living below the federal poverty level by next July, the report said.

The findings, presented by a Virginia Senate Finance Committee analyst at the panel's annual retreat, illustrate that the challenges don't end when those on welfare go to work.

Even in times of economic prosperity and low unemployment, they find mostly low-paying jobs because they have few skills and little education, the report said. And when the subsidies end and they must begin paying for their own child care and transportation to work, they can lose many of the gains they made, the report said.

"Clearly, those who are working are faring better than those who are not," analyst Steve Harms said. "But they are not there yet. Despite an increase in average earnings, working welfare recipients are still poor."

The conclusions came as no surprise to welfare workers such as Jay Thomas.

"You know as well as I do, if you're salting fries at $5.60 an hour and you've got two or three kids, you're not going to make it," said Thomas, a social services case manager in Fauquier, one of the first five counties brought into the program. "The state needs to recognize that.

"We hear a lot of the trumpeting about how well it's going. That ignores the fact that these supports are going to fall away in a year or so. It's too early to break out the pompons."

But Virginia's social services commissioner, Clarence Carter, said officials never assumed that getting people off welfare would immediately get them out of poverty.

"I don't know that we ever envisioned that people would get on the road to self-sufficiency at significantly high income levels," Carter said. "It was always understood that at the beginning, people would be at the lower end. The idea is to get them to begin that journey."

He said that social services officials are working on a plan to provide services to people who are working but struggling to stay off welfare. If they cannot support their families, state law says they can go back on welfare after two years and receive benefits for two years before starting the process again. Federal law limits most adults to five years of benefits in a lifetime.

Virginia's welfare overhaul was phased in beginning in 1995. Within 90 days of going on the rolls, welfare recipients must find a job or begin doing community service work, or they lose benefits. Their benefits initially continue when they begin earning a paycheck but end after two years.

Harms reviewed the cases of the first 40 families on welfare to reach Virginia's new two-year limit on benefits. Since July, those families – all single-parent households, all but one headed by women – have been dropped from the rolls but are receiving Medicaid and help with transportation and child-care costs.

Those transitional benefits end in July, and if their earnings remain the same, eight out of 10 of the families once again will fit the official definition of poverty, with no more than $13,000 in annual income for a family of three.

In 35 of the 40 families, the head of the household was working, but most were in entry-level positions and not making enough money to lift them out of poverty, Harms said. In all but two cases, they were making less than $7 an hour. More than half earned less than $6 an hour. Their jobs ranged from motel maid and fast-food clerk to groundskeeper and child-care worker. One held a professional job, as a registered nurse.

"The issue is, we've failed to help our women on welfare get the job training they need," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), a finance panel member and former chairman of the state Board of Social Services. "We're going to need to put more emphasis on that so that when they leave welfare, they'll be able to earn a wage that supports their family."

That's the goal of Pamela Bailey, a 25-year-old single mother who has been on welfare in Fauquier County. She hit the two-year limit this month. A recent raise and promotion at the day-care center where she works almost make up for the loss of her $207 welfare check.

With $800 a month in income, she's still below the federal poverty line for a family of two. After paying her $338 rent (she shares a modest house with another single mother) and about $200 for utilities, she said, she has "nothing really" in her pocketbook at month's end.

Bailey works two hours in the morning and about three hours in the afternoon every day. Until now, the county has covered most of the $200 monthly cost of day care for her 5-year-old son, Aaron, but come next month, she'll have to pay more of the bill as her transitional benefits run out.

"It seems to me if you're trying to help yourself, they shouldn't just cut you like that," Bailey said. "It's hard enough as it is."

The welfare overhaul was promoted by Republican Gov. George Allen with strong support from GOP lawmakers. Republicans at the retreat saw more good news in the report, noting that the number of Virginia households on welfare has fallen 37 percent since 1995.

Sen. Mark L. Earley (R-Chesapeake), who was just elected attorney general, was a co-sponsor of the welfare legislation that year. He described the trends as encouraging.

"It's too early to say that these families are indicative of the entire system," he said. "You had people who initially said we should never do welfare reform because some people would fall through the cracks. But that's no reason not to reform the system so that the greatest number of people benefit."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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