More than halfway through a planned five-year program to move 24,000 District residents off welfare and into jobs, city officials know of only 1,559 people actually have found work after leaving public assistance.

The low number of welfare-to-work success stories--out of an estimated 6,000 D.C. welfare recipients who have been dropped from the public rolls--reflects the city's continued struggle to overcome a late start and a range of other problems that have undermined its welfare reform efforts.

The District's success rate lags behind that of most states, according to local and national welfare experts who cite, among other things, the city's problems with welfare-to-work contracts and assistance programs that have few participants.

"The District is coming more slowly than other states have towards addressing some of the barriers to employment that recipients face," said Liz Schott, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "They were certainly late to come to a lot of programmatic changes."

D.C. Department of Human Services officials have said the city is behind in its efforts in part because the 1997 federal edict to revamp welfare came just as DHS was itself being reorganized.

Kate Jesberg, the DHS administrator who oversees welfare reform efforts for the District, said the department believes that more than 1,559 people have left the rolls and are employed but that many of them don't notify the department when they get jobs, making it difficult to track them.

It also is unclear how many of the 6,000 people who have left the D.C. welfare rolls have returned to public assistance, Jesberg said. The Urban Institute is conducting a study that is tracking city welfare recipients, but it won't be completed for several months.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for the more than 18,000 D.C. recipients whose welfare benefits, under new federal law, cannot be extended beyond a lifetime limit of five years--meaning, for the majority of recipients, the spring of 2002. The District will lose millions of dollars if it fails to place a growing percentage of recipients in job-related activities each year.

Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor and former chairman of the Welfare to Work transition team for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said D.C. welfare recipients--who primarily are single mothers--"seem not to be taking [the deadline] all that seriously."

"It's clear that people are not coming in in response to being told they have to participate," Edelman said. "In other parts of the country, women are understanding they have to do something or something really awful is going to happen. You don't just say, 'Well, too bad, when the time comes, they'll find out.' You have to go out and tell people. It's hard to know what the problems are, but the whole effort is not producing . . . results."

Among the problems welfare activists and other critics cite in the District's program:

* DHS has had serious problems in several multimillion-dollar contracts the city awarded to help move welfare recipients into jobs. The contractors have fallen far short of their goals to move women from welfare into jobs.

D.C. officials canceled one $6.6 million welfare-to-work contract--nine months after awarding it--because it turned out the firm, G&S Associates, owned by dentist Arthur D. Stubbs, apparently had no experience in job placement or welfare case management. (Stubbs also was receiving as much as $7 million a year from DHS's Medicaid office to run several group homes for the mentally retarded--homes where medical neglect has been documented repeatedly over the last four years.)

A. Sue Brown, who was heading the city's welfare administration, was fired this year amid allegations that she had steered the contract to Stubbs. Jesberg was made head of the welfare administration, and some advocates have praised her for trying to get the department back on track.

The welfare-to-work contracts expired in October, but have been extended to January. DHS officials plan to announce a new set of contracts soon. Officials said they will give the contractors more technical assistance and require them to give women more training and help in finding jobs.

* Six months ago, DHS announced a "diversion program" that would provide an emergency payment to low-income residents who were working but in financial trouble. The idea was to keep those residents from landing on the welfare rolls.

"We see this as a significant development in the District's welfare reform effort because it has such great potential to reduce everyday barriers to employment for the population we serve," DHS Director Jearline F. Williams said at the time.

The number of people in the program so far: Zero.

Jesberg said that many states have low participation in this program and that it is "not a program designed to serve large numbers." But welfare analysts say there is no one in the D.C. program because many don't know about it, and it is very difficult to qualify for it.

"In my daily work as an attorney working directly with [low-income residents] and other legal advocates on these issues, I have never met a person who was currently working or about to start work who would have been eligible for this program," said Brian Gilmore, of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

"Diversion" is supposed to provide assistance to people who experience a financial emergency. However, to be in the program, a person must be eligible for public assistance, but not have received such assistance for six months.

* Another DHS program, designed to help those of the 18,000 residents on welfare who have disabilities, drug addictions or other problems that prevent them from getting work, has only 20 people in it, according to testimony from DHS officials at a D.C. Council hearing.

Attorneys for welfare recipients with disabilities said it is nearly impossible to get them in the program, which is supposed to allow welfare recipients to get treatment while temporarily halting the countdown to the date when their benefits expire.

Angela Wilson, 34, is a perfect candidate for such a program, said her attorney, Sczerina Perot, of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Wilson is on welfare and in a drug treatment program. Until she completes it, she will be unable to work, Perot said.

Still, Wilson hasn't been able to get into the DHS program.

"I've been getting the runaround for months," said Wilson, who has two children. "I'm trying to get my life together. I'm going through drug treatment, but I'm scared this time is going to count against me. I am really afraid."

When told of Wilson's case, Jesberg said: "Frankly, that concerns me. We don't have an unwillingness to resolve this, but we can only fix what we're aware of."

Advocates say the low participation in the two DHS programs indicates the department isn't doing enough to push the welfare-to-work program.

"The failure to provide basic information to welfare recipients has been a fundamental flaw in the District's welfare-to-work program," Perot said.

Jesberg said DHS has "trained and retrained" its staff to tell welfare recipients about the programs.

"We have a brochure, we have posters up and we talk about it," she said. Department officials will not say how much money had been allotted to both programs or how many people they had been expected to serve. Jesberg said she could not say how much money was budgeted for the programs because they are part of an overall welfare budget and are not broken down by line item.

Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that the District ranked near the bottom in a list including 46 states that recently competed for a federal bonus for placing former welfare recipients in jobs.

But Kharfen said the city improved from 1997 to 1998 in placing people into jobs and increasing their earnings.

Maryland had about 60,000 families on the welfare rolls in August 1996; now there are about 35,000, Kharfen said. Maryland placed about 34 percent of its residents leaving the welfare rolls last year into jobs, Kharfen said. Virginia had about 50,000 families receiving welfare in 1996; that number has dropped to 35,000. Kharfen did not have details about how many people Virginia placed in jobs last year because the state did not compete for the federal bonus.

Jesberg said DHS has tried to improve its welfare-to-work program this year with college tuition assistance, teen pregnancy prevention programs, domestic violence services and adult basic education. She added that besides the 1,559 D.C. residents who have moved from welfare to jobs, 1,269 people have found full- or part-time work while continuing to receive benefits.

But part of the District's overall problem, she said, is that many welfare recipients are difficult to move into jobs.