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Getting welfare recipients on road to work takes creativity

February 18, 1997

EDITOR’S NOTE _ Welfare recipients have been told to get a job _ or else. But for many, just finding a way to get there every day is a perplexing problem. The third installment of the four-part series ``Reworking Welfare″ looks at some of the innovative approaches being taken in rural and urban America to pave the road to work.



Associated Press Writer

PRESTONSBURG, Ky. (AP) _ When Deborah Alsip climbs into her rusted-out 1981 Chevy Malibu Classic, it’s like playing a game of Russian roulette.

One day, it goes only 15 miles an hour. The next, it overheats and blows fuses. Some days, it doesn’t go at all.

``I have no horn. I have no buzzer telling me I’m leaving my lights on _ which I’ve done three times now,″ she says. ``I’m afraid I’m going to run the battery down.″

The borrowed, wobbly-wheeled clunker with the tied-on bumper and 116,000 hard miles on it has been Deborah Alsip’s ticket off welfare: She uses it to make the 13-mile trip here to college. But her ride to self-sufficiency should be a little smoother from now on.

After providing pages of personal information and waiting weeks for a criminal background check, Ms. Alsip is about to get behind the wheel of a well-maintained, 1987 former police cruiser. The spacious Crown Victoria has 100,000 miles on it, but the lease is only $30 a month and there’s a daily gas allowance of $3.

Call it a welfare-reform special.

Now that the federal government has told the states to get their residents off the dole, agencies and social service groups nationwide are accelerating their experiments with just about everything to help people make the adjustment.

It isn’t easy. In isolated places like Appalachian Kentucky, and even in inner cities across America, getting to work can be as daunting a prospect as getting a job in the first place.

In Chicago, one estimate is that nine out of every 10 new entry-level jobs are being created in the suburbs, beyond most public transit. And in the eastern Kentucky mountains, where one of 12 people is on federal assistance, the closest good job is likely to be miles away, through deep hollows and a patchy network of creekbed roads.

``There’s nothing there that you can find,″ said Ms. Alsip, a 41-year-old mother of five who has been on welfare for four years. ``I’d be lucky if my car made it up to Prestonsburg to get there and apply for the job, let alone tell them, `Yeah, I can be here every day.′ ″

Then along came the Big Sandy Area Development District, which is working with state agencies and charities to secure auctioned or donated cars for job-ready welfare recipients, who then can pool with others in similar straits.

``It’s overwhelming that there’s so many people out here in the same situation,″ said Ms. Alsip, who is studying accounting at Prestonsburg Community College and working 20 hours a week at a state social services office. ``Lots of them are in worse situations than I am.″

But since it’s not practical to get a car for everybody, and since most rural areas have limited public transportation, another trick is using existing resources.

In Glendale, Ore., they’ve turned to school buses.

Adults already were using the buses to get to high-school equivalency classes or doctor’s appointments, said Shaun Brink, director of the Glendale-Azalea Skill Center.

``It was a natural growth out of pupil transport to help put the whole family on the bus,″ said Ms. Brink, whose area has been hit hard by the downturn in the Northwest timber industry. ``We saw helping a family to find jobs as a way for us to help our children learn.″

In Talihina, Okla., where unemployment hovers around 12 percent, the nonprofit KiBois Community Action Foundation uses buses and vans to ferry job applicants to chicken plants in neighboring Arkansas. Some people travel 150 miles a day round-trip.

In January, the group started another route to the UniFirst Corp. sewing plant about 30 miles north in Wilburton, Okla. Victoria Camp, 34, a single mother of two, drives the bus, works a full shift there, then drives back in exchange for her $3 daily fare.

``I would never have been able to do it,″ said Ms. Camp, who was on welfare for five years. ```We’re 50-something miles away from anything, anyway you go.″

The perhaps most radical approach is in Kentucky, which is helping people move to where jobs are. A new program allows for a one-time payment of up to $900 to rent a moving van, pay a security deposit or lease a new apartment, or even hook up utilities. Recipients must have a verified offer of employment that pays at least 30 hours a week at minimum wage.

But some rural states are just trying to make it a little easier for people to help themselves.

Utah gives participants money to repair a car or buy a new battery, and North Carolina is planning to raise the allowable market value for cars owned by welfare recipients so having dependable wheels won’t disqualify people for assistance.

In Chicago, a group called Suburban Job-Link Corp. uses a fleet of old school buses and motor coaches to run three daily shifts out to office parks and factories. Welfare recipients ride free while training, then pay the regular $1.85 fare when they find work.

About 400 people have used the service so far, said John Plunkett, the group’s president, and his goal is to serve 1,000 people a year. He hopes the routes will prove successful enough to convince public transit officials to take them over.

``If we’re really to deal with inner-city poverty, we’ve got to find a way to let people participate in a growing regional economy,″ Plunkett said. ``And until now, anybody who doesn’t own a car can’t.″

Chicago, Baltimore, Denver, Milwaukee and St. Louis all are participating in Bridges to Work, a demonstration project developed by federal agencies and a consortium of private foundations. The idea is to match desperate employers with people desperate for work.

Mark Alan Hughes, who helped design the project, said welfare reform likely will force many people to relocate to find jobs. He envisions Steinbeck-like images of a ``welfare dust bowl.″

``In the ’30s, the Okies had California,″ said Hughes, a vice president of Public-Private Ventures in Philadelphia. ``And in the current economy, the destination is no more well-defined than something like the Sun Belt or the suburbs.″

Hughes said the government must be creative. For instance, he said, officials could cross-reference databases of subsidized housing with listings of areas that need workers, then make housing vouchers transferable anywhere in the country. If it doesn’t work out, the government would pay to get the person back to home base.

``The situation is going to be so desperate that we’re going to be in a position to try things,″ he said.

On the Hawaiian island of Molokai, faced with double-digit unemployment and a faltering agricultural base, they’re talking about trying to put some welfare recipients on the information superhighway by generating information-based jobs.

``There’s one thing about an island economy,″ said Donna Paoa, coordinator for the Molokai Education Center at Maui Community College. ``We can’t take our car and drive off to the city and move.″

Back in Kentucky, the whole community is pulling together to help Ms. Alsip also stay where she is.

The government is helping buy the cars. A local garage is checking them out. A rural transportation service is adding them to their liability insurance. And vocational school students will provide some maintenance.

``It’s going to be a little easier to go out and tell them I’m prepared to be there,″ Ms. Alsip said. ``That could help you enough to get on your feet.″

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