The majority of Alexandria's former welfare clients are faring well overall, with full-time jobs, stable housing and health insurance, according to a new study commissioned by city officials.
The study, which was done by the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech, offers an encouraging picture of the results of the city's welfare reform program--Alexandria Works!--which began in 1996.
"We really do feel like it's good news," said Jessica Yates, a program analyst with the Alexandria Department of Human Services. "It reaffirms the fact that . . . there are opportunities for clients to do well after they leave welfare."
The study, which was released last week, tracked 81 former welfare recipients between May and December 1998, and found that:
* Some 72 percent of the group were employed and their average income had increased by 54 percent.
* Most clients had health insurance, either through their employers or Medicaid.
* Most children of clients were performing the same or better in school compared with when the clients were on welfare.
Not all the news was so heartening, however.
Eleven of the individuals had not worked at all in the six months after leaving welfare. Half of the respondents reported not always having enough money for food. About half of the parents who had children younger than 2 said their child care was unreliable. And the average monthly income for the respondents averaged $1,058, which is below the federal poverty level for a family of three.
"We're never going to be 100 percent successful," said Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D), who called the study "mainly good news."
The more troublesome findings of the study, Donley said, "give us some tangible feedback that helps us with future implementation, knowing where to fill the gaps."
The study is consistent with welfare studies from across the country, said Steve Savner, a senior lawyer with the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.
"What the research shows is that people who go into the labor market with low skills, especially single parents, don't advance very far," he said. "So has welfare reform been a success? Well, if your goal was to reduce the caseload, the answer is yes. If your goal was to reduce poverty, I think we're a long way from anything we can call success."
Especially troubling, Savner said, is the study's finding on poor child-care options. One of the hardest things for parents on welfare to give up is time with their children. Good child care alleviates that concern, Savner said.
"If you don't have that, then it seems to me the trade-off between sub-poverty-level welfare and a sub-poverty level-job becomes real problematic," he said.
Studies such as the one from Virginia Tech are the next chapter in the nation's efforts to overhaul welfare and push most welfare recipients into the labor market.
In the mid-1990s, state and federal mandates stipulated that many Americans who had once been eligible for welfare no longer would be, and a two-year clock began to tick for a few thousand Alexandria residents.
Initially, Donley said, state requirements did not allow education or job training efforts to count toward welfare clients' work requirements. Alexandria officials successfully pushed the state to amend that, and Donley said the study proves that that effort was worthwhile.
"Those who got education and training got better jobs and did better," Donley said, pointing to the study finding that, on average, clients with job training or education earned $306 a month more than those without.
Alexandrian Sara Andrades, 24, is one of those people. Andrades, mother of three and an eight-year recipient of welfare, attended computer and math school for four months, thanks to bus fare, tuition and baby-sitting assistance from Alexandria Works! Tomorrow, Andrades celebrates her one-year anniversary of work with ASAP Printing and Mailing in Alexandria, an improvement from the custodial and restaurant work she used to do.
Former welfare clients who worked while they were receiving welfare also were more likely to be doing well than others.
Yates said that the trouble spots were expected and that she and her colleagues were pleased "that it's actually a very small percentage that are having that type of problems."
Overall, Donley said, "this study helps us determine that to a large degree, welfare reform, at least as it's been implemented here in the city, has been successful."