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A New Job Description

Chris Mayo
Robert Scheer

Fall Guy: Chris Mayo, a former tree-surgeon, has needed public assistance since falling out of a Chinese elm in his native Tennessee last summer.

County welfare agencies already have shifted their focus to provide education, job training and employment

By Kelly Luker

THE ONE-STORY OFFICE complex on Encinal Street feels like a small campus. The computer labs are to the left, the college advisor is upstairs and the career library is down the path, right past child care--and the Santa Cruz County Welfare Department.

This is the new face of government assistance, where faceless check-cutters have been replaced by career advisors intent on providing one-stop service where folks in need can get on welfare--and quickly off.

Social workers in Santa Cruz long ago read the writing on the wall. Although the final details of the state's welfare reform package were still being hashed out in Sacramento last week, they had already begun reworking their programs, preparing for the inevitable. They knew they had to find a way for 3,500 families to become self-supporting by the summer of 1999. This change promised a seismic paradigm shift, and not just for welfare recipients.

"We are asking eligibility workers to change their jobs 100 percent," says Lynn Miller of the Human Resources Agency. "For over 50 years, AFDC was an entitlement program. Our [only] job was to make sure they got it and that they qualified."

The program Miller is referring to, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, has always been the backbone of the nation's welfare or "cash aid" programs. Its new name, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), reflects both the new limitations and the new perspective bureaucrats like Miller are expected to take.

Miller admits that the new requirements have fundamentally changed the way he sees his purpose. "We never recognized barriers before [to getting off welfare] because it was an entitlement," he says. "I think we enabled, to some degree."

[line]

Back to Work: After years of political squabbling, California lawmakers are crafting a welfare reform bill that could find jobs for a half-million people--but some folks are being left out of the new deal.

Plus, views from the inside of the System: a reluctant welfare mom, a lifelong welfare recipient and a welfare adult without kids.

[line]

Administrators point out that the majority of Santa Cruz County AFDC recipients used it as a "bridge." But a sizable number have collected benefits for six years or more, and some even land in the "multigenerational" column. The HRA estimates that 30 percent of welfare recipients here--about 1,000 adults--fit that category.

Now, everyone who receives TANF, Food Stamps or SSI (Supplemental Security Income) will have a maximum of two years to join a work program or get some education, a challenge that administrators are scrambling to meet.

Many are pinning their hopes on a program called GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence). First begun in 1989, GAIN was designed to help welfare recipients identify and overcome obstacles to employment, professional or personal.

Now folded into TANF, the workshops have also been retooled to meet the needs of the new reform.

Pam Davinson manages the self-sufficiency programs which operate the GAIN workshops weekly in both North and South County. Her agency is preparing to get busier.

Tammy Gilmore
Robert Scheer

Off The Ground: Tammy Gilmore's optimism and drive will be aided by increased support for a government job training and education program.

Everybody Wants to Work

BEGINNING LAST YEAR, the agency shifted its focus to finding job for the people who came in the doors. GAIN has tripled the number of clients it serves and now boasts an 80 percent job placement rate.

Davinson says that this success is owed, in no small part, to the way Santa Cruz social service agencies are changing their perspectives. "We saw [welfare recipients] as 'less than.' But when we saw them as capable, functioning human beings and told them, 'Go out and get the best job you can,' things changed."

But even with access to training, single-mother families--which characterize almost 80 percent of area TANF cases--must still find a way out of what has long been a Catch-22: child care.

The state has helped fund child care for fewer than one out of four dependent families over the past two years. At this point, no one knows for sure whether a reform bill will come out of Sacramento with increased funding for child care.

However, every program administrator agrees that developing self-sufficient families in this county provides a daunting challenge.

"We have a lot of small businesses, [which means] less pay and less opportunity to get ahead," Miller says.

Miller hopes for a reform law that allows her clients to make a living.

"That minimum-wage job is going to have to move to a self-sufficient job," she says. "Getting a job, then getting off welfare is not enough. We want it so you can be self-sufficient in Santa Cruz."

According to a worksheet provided by Californians for Family Economic Self-Sufficiency, a women's advocacy program, a single parent with two school-age children would need to make an hourly wage of $14 to meet the basic needs of housing, food, child care and medical care in Santa Cruz County. With three preschoolers, that hourly wage jumps to around $27.

Those figures have people like Chris Lyons-Johnson, executive director of the Santa Cruz Community Action Board, worried. "Our worst fear is that persons aged and disabled, as well as families with children, will be forced into poverty and homelessness," says Lyons-Johnson. "The realities of the job market in Santa Cruz County are a major obstacle. There aren't enough jobs now for people looking for work."

Legal immigrants face the most severe cuts. Under the new federal guidelines, they will lose access to food stamps and SSI benefits next month. At press time, the governor is negotiating with the Assembly over a proposal that would have the state provide $160 million to replace the cut-off federal money. According to Will deBroekert, district manager of the Social Security Administration, that could affect 3,000 county residents.

Although Santa Cruz has struggled to meet the coming welfare reform changes, administrators are concerned that recipients will not avail themselves of the services in time. "We're afraid that people aren't going to come in until it's really late," says Davinson. "We want everyone to know to use as much of our services as you need to."

Without a crystal ball, no one can predict who will gain and who will lose in the following years. The "campus" may be nothing more than a school of hard knocks for some. But others predict that it will offer what campuses traditionally have provided: education, a widening of horizons and a fresh opportunity.

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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