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Clinton Orders Welfare Hiring By U.S. Agencies

By Pierre Thomas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9 1997; Page A01

President Clinton yesterday directed the heads of all federal agencies and departments to take steps within a month to hire welfare recipients, a move intended to enlist the nation's largest employer in the effort to reduce public assistance rolls.

Under legislation Clinton signed last August to overhaul the welfare system, able-bodied recipients are forced off welfare rolls in two years, a requirement that critics say could expand the underclass.

Advocates for the poor blistered the president for supporting Republican-drafted reform without giving the federal government a clear role in helping those displaced. Yesterday, Clinton sought to fend off attacks that he helped "destroy the national safety net" by adding a federal government component to his earlier calls to business leaders to hire those who are being required to leave the welfare rolls.

"All the rest of us have our responsibility, indeed, our moral obligation, to make welfare reform work, to make sure that those who must now work, can work," Clinton said in his weekly radio address. "This cause must engage the energy and the commitment of everyone in our society, of business, houses of worship, labor unions, universities, civic organizations, as well as government at every level."

To underscore the importance of the directive, Clinton placed Vice President Gore in charge of the initiative and gave agency heads 30 days to present him with detailed plans for recruiting and hiring qualified welfare recipients.

The Clinton directive also authorizes department heads to expand the near-dormant, 29-year-old "worker trainee" program that allows agencies quickly to hire low-skilled persons in jobs that provide training and development. In fiscal 1996, which ended Sept, 30, the federal government hired 120 persons under that trainee program; by contrast, in 1968, the program's first year, 7,000 were employed, White House officials said.

"The trainee program is an authority that has not been vigorously used in a long time," said Bruce Reed, White House domestic policy adviser who emphasized the Clinton administration's renewed interest.

In theory, the government, which employs more than 1.9 million persons and hired more than 58,000 people last year, could make a significant contribution to hiring former welfare recipients. But some experts on government hiring practices say that while the president's goal is noble, it is unclear what the overall impact of the directive will be. They say some daunting obstacles to hiring welfare recipients remain, in part because of limited resources and a federal government being reduced. The shrinking federal payroll intensifies competition for jobs.

"I don't believe there are going to be that many jobs in the federal government that are appropriate for the skill level of welfare recipients," said Robert Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 155,000 workers. "It will not be an easy task. Money for training has been significantly cut. These folks need to be trained in order to be given an opportunity to succeed."

To ease concerns of federal workers, the administration yesterday morning sent a representative to meet with American Federation of Government Employees President John N. Sturdivant, who is hospitalized in Fairfax County. "We are going work with the administration to help shape this program, but we were given the assurance that no federal workers will be displaced," said Magda Lynn Seymour, spokesperson for the federation, which has 700,000 members in 67 federal agencies.

White House officials also sought to allay concerns the government would be creating a "jobs program" that would offer preferential treatment to welfare recipients.

"It would still be up to the agencies to decide who to hire and they should seek qualified people who are capable of doing the job," Reed said. "We want the federal government to set an example."

The White House offered no firm figure on the number of welfare recipients who might be hired, but said most of the jobs will involve positions paying about $12,500 a year, including clerks, equipment operators, park laborers and various aides. As part of the initiative, Clinton asked the federal agencies to develop programs to assist the new lower-income workers. For example, the agencies are asked to make available information about earned-income tax credits, which are designed to encourage employment by subsidizing the working poor, and transit fare subsidy programs.

Reed emphasized the private sector must take the dominant role of moving persons from welfare rolls and said the "biggest obstacle is building a bridge from the welfare office to employers."

In the last four years, 2.6 million persons have been removed from welfare rolls – in part, Clinton said, because of a growing economy that has produced 12 million jobs the last four years, 600,000 in the first two months of this year. Clinton said his goal is to move another 2 million off public assistance in the next four years. But Clinton cautioned "that many of these people will be harder to reach and will need more help than those who moved off the rolls in the last four years."

Staff writer Stephen Barr contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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