About 80 percent of the first class of former welfare recipients in the District's experimental JOBS welfare revision program has been placed in full-time positions with an average wage of $5.70 an hour, giving the year-old employment program a promising start, according to local government officials and national welfare policy specialists.
The Job Opportunities and Business Skills training program is one of the smallest of the few programs around the nation seeking to reduce Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) payments by training and then placing recipients in jobs, local welfare officials said.
"These placement rates have yet to be matched anywhere," said Timothy Healy of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit, New York-based firm that evaluates the impact of local and state-run welfare revision programs. He added, however, that it may take years to determine the ultimate success of the District's initiative, as job retention rates are often as significant as the original placement figures in measuring the success of a program.
No firm statistics on job retention are available, according to District officials, because most of the participants were placed in jobs in the last six months.
Locally run welfare revision programs were prompted by federal legislation passed in 1981 that shifted more of the burden of welfare policy changes to the states; in recent years, state and local governments around the country have begun testing ways to reduce their welfare rolls by training AFDC recipients for jobs.
Although public policy experts are often hesitant to compare placement rates and average wages reported by programs in different regions -- the programs often differ in financing levels, length of training and objectives -- most observers say that no other program in the nation has achieved a placement rate exceeding 75 percent with an average wage of at least $5.50 per hour.
For example, the highly publicized Massachusetts Employment and Training program, which has a $40 million annual budget and has placed more than 25,000 participants since it was established on a much smaller scale four years ago, boasts a placement rate of about 68 percent. San Diego's seven-year-old Employment Preparation Program, which was labeled by a recent Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. study as the nation's most effective program, has placed about 48 percent of its more than 12,000 participants in jobs with an average wage of more than $5 an hour.
While the District's placement rate so far is apparently the highest, some experts caution that the program is too small and too new to be rated the most successful and that it has too few participants to have a significant impact on welfare rolls.
For example, experts say, the small size -- there were only 200 participants this year, about 50 of whom are still being trained -- allows for careful screening of participants so that, in many cases, the students are given more hands-on training and are able to acquire better skills than many of their counterparts in other programs.
In addition, experts say, the heavy demand for clerical workers in the District area -- in large part because of the presence of the federal government -- may play a role in producing the high placement rate among the program's 137 graduates to date.
"The placement rate is very high, but it may not represent a true picture of the program's relative success," said Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless. Because of the small number of people served, he added, the program can have only a "modest impact" on decreasing welfare rolls.
"The training programs do not remove the reasons why people are on welfare, such as having too many kids or health or family problems," Burtless said. "Programs such as this are worth continuing, but even if people are getting jobs paying five dollars an hour, it still will not be enough to support a family with two kids."
About 80,000 people in the District receive AFDC payments, welfare officials said. The JOBS program, which was initiated in June 1986, can now train a maximum of 200 AFDC recipients a year and is expected to serve about 300 recipients next year.
The District's JOBS program works to develop employable skills in participants, provides family support services to help them enter the working world, and guarantees full-time jobs to all graduates of the program. Once a participant is placed in a job, he or she is entitled to a year of follow-up counseling and guidance.
Several District government agencies as well as 85 local firms, including the law firm of Arnold & Porter, AT&T, Ramada Renaissance Hotel and Woodward & Lothrop, have hired JOBS graduates, according to JOBS coordinator Shari Curtis. She added that most of the graduates were placed in clerical positions, although some have become computer programmers, teacher's aides and nurse's aides.
Eighteen percent of the graduates are being paid at least $7 an hour, and 50 percent are paid at least $6. About 12 percent of those enrolled dropped out of the program for various reasons, many of them family-related, Curtis said.
"What is most impressive" about the District's JOBS program "is the intensive preparation they give each student. It's truly unusual to find a program that stays with the students for six months at a time," said Linda Wilcox, a welfare revision advocate who has been recruited to direct Maine's recently established welfare employment program.
Wilcox added that Maine's Welfare, Employment, Education and Training program has integrated several of the techniques originally used by JOBS.
JOBS administrators say that the high placement rate has been prompted by the program's emphasis on equipping the students with work place etiquette -- such as reporting for work on time -- plus the promise of jobs with medical and insurance benefits and a peer counseling and support network.
"These people have to believe they have gotten the break they've been looking for. A lot of them have been in other programs before and are frustrated," Curtis said.
The JOBS training course, which takes six months to complete, costs an average of $1,800 per participant, a relatively small amount when compared with similar welfare revision programs, researchers said.
The program's handpicked participants -- who, as in some job programs elsewhere, must have completed 10th grade -- must be recommended by a welfare caseworker and go through an interview with a JOBS representative before being accepted for the program, Curtis said.
Participants undergo three months of classroom training -- including lectures on topics such as "self-esteem building" and "motivation training" -- as well as three months of on-the-job training with the promise that they will, upon completion of the course, be placed in full-time, unsubsidized, permanent employment.
JOBS participants, as well as officials at firms hiring graduates, have expressed satisfaction with the program.
"We operate in a fast-paced work place, with high expectations for all the people who work here; the three people we've hired through the program have been able to handle the environment here," said Linda Anderson, director of personnel at Arnold & Porter, adding that the firm plans to hire another JOBS graduate within a year.
"I feel I can live on my own now without depending on the government," said recent JOBS graduate Rosemary Jackson, who is a receptionist at the National Association of Broadcasters.
Jackson, who had received AFDC payments for eight years before enrolling and who had never held a full-time job, added that the program was most effective in "helping me with motivation and confidence-building."
Jackson, who is not married and has two young children, said that her monthly income since breaking away from ADFC to her new job has about doubled to $700 a month.
According to JOBS graduate Cheryl Warren, a secretary at Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., "I had had a lot of problems. I was a bump on a log before all this.
"But the program helped me build up my self-esteem. I'm able to work in a field I had no experience in," said Warren, who had worked as a security officer before receiving AFDC payments for two years.