Welfare Reform We Gotta Do More Than Pick up the Pieces


MONTEREY–Carmen Hernandez, director of The Salvation Army’s Good Samaritan Center, sees SalWORKS trainee plan for her desired job: computer specialist. Looking on are Chris Belloumini, SalWORKS coordinator, and Auxiliary Captain John Broadbent.

by Robert Docter – 

Yes–welfare reform has arrived and its impact is already being felt. What does this mean to the Army as a faith based charity–to a corps program–and ARC or ARP? Many corps programs throughout the territory are reporting increased demand for food and housing as welfare reform requires former recipients to find work and budgets are being stretched almost to a breaking point.

What should we be planning and doing right now?

The problem

“What’s a resume?” she asked the Army’s worker in the SalWORKs program–confusing it with the word that means ‘to begin again after an interruption.’

She was six months pregnant and holding an infant of 14 months. She was 18. Let’s call her Laura, a composite picture of clients in the Army’s newest effort to meet the major social need of our day –the flesh and blood of welfare reform.

Life has not been gentle or soft or kind to Laura. A runaway from an abusive home, she never completed high school –not even close. The unborn child and the infant have different fathers. Both have disappeared. Besides impregnating her, they had introduced her to alcohol and crack cocaine. She stopped using each time after learning of her pregnancy. She hasn’t used since the last one left.

She looked tired–her complexion sallow, dark rings beneath lifeless eyes, hair hanging limp. She looked hopeless. She has only worked once in her entire life, for six months when she was 16, and now she’s been told that her AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) income has stopped and that her TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) support will end shortly. She must find work to support her children and herself. She hasn’t got the slightest idea what to do.

Currently, she’s living in an Army emergency shelter for families, and it was here that she learned of the opportunity provided by the SalWORKs program.

It will take some time and energy in orientation, placement and support in order to assure that Laura has even enough skill to hold a job and enough income to survive.

1. To be effective in welfare reform, every officer and social service worker needs to have a full understanding of the Federal Act and, most importantly, be thoroughly aware of the approaches to welfare reform in the state plan where they serve. How will the plan affect your community?

How many individuals will be required to shift from AFDC to TANF support?

What kinds of barriers to employment will this population bring? What are other governmental and private agencies doing now?

What “networks” exist in the community?

In San Diego, Monterey, and Orange County, The Salvation Army has initiated SalWORKS, a program to provide a brief orientation, placement in a job, and support services which include a continuing relationship and counseling.


The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 changed the way our country helps the destitute and the needy. The 60 year-old AFDC program is gone. With it goes an elimination of the open-ended entitlement to cash assistance that had been seriously abused by only a very small percent of the population served. In its place is a program of temporary assistance (TANF) of up to two years while individuals gain employment. Should they lose employment during a lifetime, there is a five year maximum lifetime limit on any income to individual families.

The Act gave tremendous flexibility to states to deal with the problem of poverty, and all 50 states have had to submit their own plans for assisting former AFDC recipients move from welfare to work. Each state is different. Some are tough. Some aren’t. There are strengths and weaknesses associated with each state plan, and depending on a point of view, some would call one thing a strength while others would call the same thing a weakness. In California, each separate county had to come up with its own plan, and approaches to service vary widely from county to county within general limits of the CalWORKs state plan. Most other states in the West have one state-wide plan.

The Act makes it very clear that a much higher percentage of welfare recipients must find work of some kind. Welfare as we’ve known it is dead. The new plan strongly emphasizes a Work First orientation, and most states require that the work initially be unsubsidized. Subsidized employment allows recipients to work for a private employer who gets a subsidy from some government welfare benefits budget in order to hire them and introduce them to the world of work. Unsubsidized work simply means that whatever income the individual can generate must come only from the employer, whose resources do not include any welfare support money. Another form of Work First involves participation in some kind of short range program that includes education and training in job search, rÈsumÈ writing, and job and life skills which are essential if someone is to be successful.

The philosophy behind the Work First approach is based on the premise that job advancement and higher wages are more possible as a result of actual experience in the work place rather than participation in an education or training program. This philosophy definitely fits the “cream” at the top of the former AFDC recipients, and possibly fits most of the top half of the group. Serious questions exist concerning the appropriateness of minimizing orientation and training sessions for the bottom third of this population, who bring with them many more barriers to employment than those at the top.

The traditional constituency served by the Army fit the profile of this bottom third, and the SalWORKs program addresses this population.

States also vary in regard to other dimensions of service such as criteria for granting exemptions, the severity of sanctions for not working, diversion programming, and time limits pertaining to unemployment. While the Federal law permits a two year phase-in for individuals, states are allowed to shorten that phase-in period and impose strict sanctions.

2. Know the details of the plan in effect in your area. What are the details of the plan that affect your community?

When a family switches from AFDC to TANF benefits, how much time do they have to find work?

What job search help is provided? What hours of employment are required? What kinds of sanctions “kick in” if an individual stays unemployed?

What happens to people who lose their jobs? How do they get benefits?

Most states continue benefits for 20-30 days while an individual seeks employment. Some will not allow benefits during at least a portion of the job search activity. In these states, Oregon is one, the Army will find increased need for emergency services while the adults in the family continue to seek work. Each week of job search requires 40 hours of effort in order to maintain benefits. If the person is unsuccessful in finding employment, most plans allow the person to retain benefits for a short period of time while increased job acquisition skills are taught. Some states even allow the individual to obtain a subsidized or a non-paid position. Where these circumstances exist the training program needs to assess the barriers to employment held by the individual and find effective ways to manage them. If one of the barriers is addiction, the individual could fit perfectly into an ARC or ARP program.

Job availability and job search

Right now, the economy is booming, and in most areas of the West jobs are available. Where this is the case, job search becomes a “seekers” market. This is especially easy for those who have had prior employment and developed some marketable skills. Where there are no skills, they need to be developed. Often times, this population doesn’t even know how to go about getting the skills. Programs then must be flexible enough to meet the requirements of whatever the state plan might be as well as the needs of the client population.

Nothing in the Federal Act prohibits a state from counting individuals as successfully placed if they are in unpaid work or in subsidized work. Some state plans, however, have severe limitations on this approach. The Army has had considerable experience with unpaid work experience in the work therapy model of the ARCs.Where this approach is permitted for particular clients within a state plan, assignment to the local ARC on non-residential basis with the development of job readiness skills could meet multiple needs of this population. If the client brings addiction as a barrier, the program can be even more beneficial. The SalWORKs program in San Diego is experimenting with this model.

We need to know where the jobs might be in each community. One way to do this is through the idea of job development. This involves going into the job market and meeting with employers to actually redefine certain jobs to fit a wider range of skills. Where positions are vacant, it might be possible to re-write the job description in a manner that allows employment of two people instead of one. Each site in the SalWORKs program has a job developer.

3. Know the job market where you are. What referral sources are currently available to assist welfare-to-work clients? How does your state relate to unpaid work experi-ence and subsidized employment? What is the job market like in your area?

The most difficult to place — the bottom third of the job- seeking population

Some individuals have difficulty finding work regardless of its availability. They bring more barriers to employment with them. The single mother without adequate job readiness or skills will have difficulty escaping the welfare net. Determining the strength and spread of the safety net under this group is difficult. Edin and Lein in their study Making Ends Meet (Russell Sage Foundation) interviewed nearly 400 welfare and low-income single mothers in four states over a six year period. Even with all the welfare benefits available (Medicaid, AFDC, food stamps, and housing subsidy) they were only able to generate sufficient resources to meet roughly 60 percent of need. Adequate food, clothing and other necessities were often lacking. Eden and Lein report that most of the mothers made repeated effort to enter the work force only to be forced to return to welfare when they lost their jobs– often because the income was less than welfare or because a sick child required them to miss work.

Homeless individuals often don’t even have an address or telephone where they can receive invitations for an interview. If they get the invitation they usually don’t have clothes appropriate for a positive presentation.

Substance abusers make up one-fourth to one-third of this population. Unless they are able to deal with their addiction, the likelihood of any extended employment is slim. They need to develop a program to achieve sobriety, and, regardless of what they think, they can’t do it alone.

Mental health patients who are receiving and are balanced on appropriate medication can often be successful in the work place.

Low basic skills and the learning disabled require special care. Illiteracy can be conquered with help.

4. Know your present welfare/poverty population. What barriers to employment are evident in the population you work with now? What can you do to help alleviate these barriers? What other agencies in the community can you partner with?

Child care

The Act assures individuals that child care will be provided. Some states provide exemptions from work only in relation to parenting new-born infants. Others are starting with programs that focus on parents without any children below a certain age–say age three. Some even exempt recipient participation with youngsters below school age.

The Army has many child care programs throughout the West. Many of these are licensed or certified and operate at capacity already. We could double the availability of child care slots and still not make a significant dent in the child care need.

Support Service

Job retention services are essential especially with the hard to place recipients. Finding creative ways to assure continued employment means having support groups available, individual counseling, mediation services (etc.) The SalWORKs Orange County program does much of this on what they call “laundry night.” Once a week clients will have their laundry picked up. They and their children go to a laundry facility in the community. While clothes are in the wash, both the parents and the children participate in training and support services. There are “folding breaks” and “load breaks.” Clients are rewarded with free loads by answering questions and participating in classes.


The most difficult part of the funding problem is getting started. It is possible to establish “memoranda of understanding” with local counties and state agencies which will guarantee you costs for recipients who are successfully placed in jobs. Grants from foundations and various governmental entities can assist in start up costs.

The spiritual dimension

Without preaching to those we help, we can reveal Christian love in a manner designed to make them want to have increased association with us. This is the call of Christ. Here is our opportunity. The need is great. Let us enter the field of battle.

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