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Welfare Program Helps People Get Jobs

State Capital Bureau

April 03, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ Three years ago, Shelby Aaron of Doniphan, Mo. didn't think he had much of a future. With five children and no job, Aaron was relying on food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children to keep food on the table and clothes on their backs.

Then, Aaron enrolled in a program that changed his life.

In 1990, the Missouri Family Services Division implemented the FUTURES program to help welfare recipients get the training and education they need to become self-sufficient. By 1992, the program was in effect throughout the state, and Aaron, now 46, enrolled. He then began volunteering at Doniphan's City Auto Parts and Tires.

"He came as a volunteer, so I wasn't expecting a lot," said owner Gary Crockett. "I was pleasantly surprised."

Two years ago, Crockett hired Aaron to work full-time. Aaron has been off the welfare system since.

Missouri law requires a percentage of AFDC recipients to take part in either job training or community volunteering in order to receive benefits.

Through FUTURES, participants enroll in programs like adult basic education, job search assistance, on-the-job training and job readiness training.

FUTURES has been widely promoted by many state officials as innovative program to help people get off welfare.

But a recent figures from the Social Services Department have raised questions about the program's effectiveness.

About half of the 24,000 who have participated in the program since it began, dropped out of the program or have not found work, said Richard Koon, the state's FUTURES program director.

The remaining 52 percent are either employed or are still in the FUTURES program, Koon said.

A study by the Social Services Department found that a higher percentage of FUTURES graduates than non-FUTURES recipients end up returning to the welfare system within 12 months. And of those who return to the welfare system, FUTURES graduates return to the system two months sooner, on average, than non-FUTURES participants.

One factor for the disappointing figures cited in the study is that those in the FUTURES program are, on average, younger and have more children.

Sociologists from St. Louis and Washington Universities are conducting an independent study to determine other factors.

"What has been basically commonly known is that because these people are finding minimum wage jobs, they are cycling back on AFDC after the transitional benefits stop," said Celestine Robb, a St. Louis University sociology professor.

Robb said that another problem is that the job market doesn't have the number or kinds of jobs that encourage people to stay off welfare. "The majority of the jobs that people are acquiring are clerical and service jobs," Robb said. If participants have been trained only to do those types of jobs, there is very little chance of promotion, Robb said.

Still, many state workers praise the FUTURES program for the people it has gotten off the system.

"I could sit and tell you one success story after another," said Donna Pinkerton, a FUTURES supervisor for nine southeast Missouri counties. "We've had people go from $245 a month to $25,000 a year."

To help with the transition from welfare to work, FUTURES participants receive transitional benefits, like child care, Medicaid and transportation, while going through the program. Medicaid and child care continue for one year or until participants are eligible for employer-sponsored benefits.

However, with most participants landing minimum or just above minimum wage jobs, not all receive these types of benefits from their employers.

The Social Services Department reports that the average starting wage for participants in 1994 was $5.49 per hour. About 41 percent of participants earned between $4.25 and $4.99.

"In some areas it's a real problem that the entry level jobs available don't offer a good alternative to the social benefit package," Koon said. As a result, he said, it's not unusual for FUTURES graduates to quit working and return to AFDC.

"There's a lot of barriers that they just cannot overcome," Pinkerton said. She added that she sees many people who drop out of the program later return to complete it.

As for how long FUTURES participants stay employed _ Koon said the Social Services Department doesn't track that information.