Shove off

State cuts programs that help people on welfare find jobs.

"I FINALLY FOUND a job that I don't mind getting up for," says 52-year-old Jonnie Jones. She had been on public assistance, off and on, for five years when she was referred by welfare workers late last year to a small organization that works intensively with individuals to get them into the working world. "It helped me a lot," Jones says of her experiences with Creative Economic Opportunities. "After a while, you just get worn down. I didn't just need a push, I needed a shove."

She says Marnie Gustavson, Creative Economic Opportunities' president, gave her that shove. Gustavson prodded Jones to set career goals, got her medical help for depression, and was generally available to offer support around the clock. Jones now works as an aide at a group home for disabled adults.

Despite such successes, Gustavson will probably have to stop taking welfare clients in December. Many similar organizations around the state that receive clients from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) are also ending their work in the welfare arena, or even closing down entirely. The reason is a 55 percent cut in the amount of money DSHS allocates to contractors on whom it has relied, particularly in the four years since welfare reform began, to deal with long-term recipients who have proved hardest to get to work. Contractors like Gustavson say they are dismayed not only at their individual predicament but at the impact of such cuts at a crucial time in welfare reform. The state will kick the first batch of people off welfare in a little less than a year, as they reach the five-year limit on welfare benefits. "Now is when the rubber meets the road," says Gustavson.

What's more, the state has made further cuts in the Workfirst program that administers welfare programs: It has trimmed the Community Jobs program, which subsidizes internships for welfare recipients, by $3 million, or about 10 percent of its budget; the state has reduced the amount clients can get for work-related expenses such as automobile repairs; and it has cut staff by 275 positions in DSHS' Economic Services Division, which oversees welfare, as well as food-stamp benefits, for the agency. All these cuts are retroactive to the beginning of the fiscal year last July but are only now starting to be implemented.

Ken Miller, the governor's top welfare advisor, explains that the cuts are the result of a $55 million shortfall in projected spending over the next two years. There is less money coming in because the Legislature reduced Gov. Locke's welfare budget by $23 million last session.

More interestingly, expenses have increased because the cost of running the expanded child-care program instituted with welfare reform has ballooned in recent years, from $100 million when reforms began to $300 million today.

That's not bad news. The increased demand for child care is a side effect of getting more people to work. But it does underscore a surprising fact about the finances of welfare reform-namely, it hasn't saved money even though welfare caseloads in this state have dropped by a dramatic 40 percent. Because the state has poured millions into the work side of reform—helping clients not only with child care but with job training, drug and mental-health treatment, and other practical issues related to holding down a job—the annual Workfirst budget has stayed at about $900 million over the past four years. "We've just changed how the money is spent," says Miller.

Miller emphasizes the constancy of overall welfare spending in order to downplay the significance of specific cuts.He notes, for instance, that the money the state is taking out of its contractor budget is being funneled into a new program, Whole Family Services, that uses an even more intensive, comprehensive approach in working with longtime recipients than did most contractors.

Things aren't so sunny at the ground level, however. "The impact has been pretty severe," Chet Linowski, deputy administrator for DSHS's King County region, says of budget cuts. He says this region, at least, will have $2.35 million less to spend this year than last. The loss of contractors is most painful, he says, because of their proven track record in getting people to work. He doesn't believe that the new Whole Family Services program will be a substitute. Intended to work with the entire family on a range of complex programs, the program wouldn't be appropriate for, say, a client who simply needs drug treatment. More importantly, the program costs a lot of money per client and therefore is able to serve fewer people than were being served by contractors. There are only 117 slots available for Whole Family Services this year in King County, though 867 local families risk being kicked off welfare next August.

Says Rich Parker, a welfare social worker in Lake City, "I don't know where we're going to refer these people next or how we're supposed to get them jobs."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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