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Self-Sufficiency Project Pursues Elusive Dream

Times Staff Writer

Pasadena thought it had an answer last September to the growing social problem of impoverished families headed by women.

After months of anticipation, Pasadena was selected by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as one of 77 localities nationwide to participate in a new concept offering housing assistance, job training and child care to eligible single mothers.

But the fanfare was short-lived, city officials say. In recent weeks, Pasadena has been forced to modify its program to counter a high dropout rate among the single mothers. And because Pasadena is one of the first localities to select participants and place them in job training, its problems may foreshadow flaws in similar programs in Los Angeles and Orange counties, where officials are just now completing the selection process.

33 Single Mothers

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Since March, Pasadena has chosen 33 single mothers--the majority of whom are welfare recipients--to receive the subsidized housing, child care and job training that make up Project Self-Sufficiency, a pilot project combining the efforts of the public and private sectors.

But 22 of the women either dropped out because of lack of interest or were rejected as unqualified. Eleven subsequently were awarded subsidized housing--the first stage of Pasadena’s program. Now, six of those 11 have decided to keep their housing while dropping out of the job training central to the program’s goal. HUD has told a frustrated Pasadena that it cannot take back the housing subsidies from those who dropped out and issue them to other applicants.

“We have lost those people,” said Diane Moore Lovell, administrator of the city’s Career Services Division. “Some didn’t want to work. Others said it wasn’t economically feasible to take a job paying only $5 or $6 an hour and lose the medical benefits that go with welfare. It’s been very disheartening.”

Lovell said Pasadena will now require the 19 participants yet to be selected to complete some of the job training before they are awarded housing under HUD’s Section 8 program. The housing thus will be used as a sort inducement to ensure continued participation. Lovell acknowledged that the city had done a poor job of selecting applicants and predicted a higher success rate with better screening and changes in the awarding of the housing.

Community Skills Center

The Pasadena participants receive their job training at the Community Skills Center, a vocational center that offers instruction in such areas as electronics assembly and food service. After the training is complete, the city’s Private Industry Council, made up of local businesses, will assist trainees in finding jobs. Pasadena officials have yet to determine the cost to the city of the training, child care and transportation subsidies it must provide as its share in the program.

Donna Blakely, 20, is one of the six women who dropped out of the program but kept the housing subsidy. She said that the program was never fully explained and that she was never told that it was aimed at self-sufficiency. Blakely, a high school dropout and mother of a 2-year-old boy, said Pasadena officials never asked about her career goals. Blakely said she had been working part-time in a child-care facility and taking basic-skills education courses. She dropped out of the program and last Thursday she quit her job. “My son had an asthma attack and I had to miss work,” said Blakely, who receives welfare. “They didn’t believe me . . . so I quit.”

Lisa Rhue, a 28-year-old single mother from Pasadena who remains in the program, said welfare is so degrading that she would take a job paying $5 or $6 an hour, even if it meant giving up Medi-Cal for her and her 4-year-old daughter.

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“My goals are not to struggle like I have been and to be able to get off welfare and make it on my own,” said Rhue, who will enroll her daughter in a free child-care program while she takes electronics courses at the Community Skills Center this fall.

“Welfare’s not any money. I can’t see how anybody can survive on it,” she said. “It’s the easy way out.”

Too Early to Tell

It’s too early to tell what effect the project conceived by HUD will have on the single mothers hoping to make the transition from public assistance to productive employment. But in their effort to implement the program, local project directors in Pasadena and other demonstration sites have faced numerous unforeseen problems. The complaints range from a lack of clear guidelines from HUD to insufficient funding to carry out the program’s lofty goals.

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Officials in several localities interviewed said that, unlike Pasadena, they anticipated the potential for high dropout rates and have taken measures to guard against it. Some cities, such as Kansas City, will issue the housing only after the participant has completed 90 days of vocational or basic-skills education. Others, such as Redding in Northern California, are even more demanding and have withheld housing until the single mother has gotten a job. Several more, such as Los Angeles and Orange counties, will approve housing soon after the participant has signed on, confident that an arduous interview and selection process has weeded out the less motivated.

Orientation Process

Los Angeles County has selected 125 of its 200 participants, many of whom just finished an orientation process. Orange County has selected eight of its 100 participants.

Still, project directors in several cities acknowledged the potential for significant dropout from Project Self-Sufficiency, saying it was an expected outcome of any program targeting the hard-core unemployed.

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“Unlike Pasadena, we’ve had no problem finding welfare mothers genuinely interested in improving their lot,” said Jacqueline Foster-Wilson, division director of the Housing Authority in Berkeley, one of nine sites in California. “They talk about wanting to get a job and providing a better life for their babies.

“But they don’t know where to begin,” she said. “They need some direction and hopefully a program like this will provide that.”

Whatever its results, local directors said, the project will probably fuel debate over the causes of poverty and whether government programs of the past or new approaches joining the public and private sectors best address the needs of the poor.

Fragmented the Family

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Many project directors said births out of wedlock and unemployment have so fragmented the family that the majority of households in many black communities are now headed by women. These families often are caught in a cycle of poverty and survive on welfare and food stamps. Many of the single mothers participating in the project in Pasadena and elsewhere are black women who grew up in such families.

“These are the babies who were running around when their mothers used to come each year to recertify their Section 8 housing,” Foster-Wilson said. “They grew up in subsidized housing, and many are second- and third-generation single mothers. They know firsthand what it’s like to grow up on welfare.

“We’re hoping they can get a job that will break that cycle,” she said. “But we have to remember that you can’t change the whole world with one program.”

Census figures nationwide show that the poverty rate for families headed by women has increased greatly over the past 10 years, just as the number of these fragmented families has risen dramatically, particularly among blacks. More than 43% of black families are headed by women, as compared to 13% of white families, 1980 Census figures show.

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51% in Pasadena

In Pasadena, 51% of the black families with children under 18 years old were headed by women in 1980. The corresponding percentages for white and Latino families were 17% and 20% respectively.

Project Self-Sufficiency is the product of an attempt by the Reagan Administration to find better ways to utilize Section 8 housing and other federal funds earmarked for impoverished families. HUD agreed to subsidize 5,000 housing units nationwide with $25 million in assistance to local governments selected to participate in the project. Although the pilot project ends after two years, the families will be able to stay in the subsidized housing for at least five years.

To qualify for Section 8 housing, a family cannot earn more than 50% of the median income of a given locality. The family then pays one-third of its monthly income for housing, and the Section 8 program subsidizes the remainder.

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For their part, local governments must implement a plan offering job training and basic-skills education, child care and job placement.

June Koch, the assistant secretary for policy development and research at HUD who conceived the project, said federal officials have long known that federal, state and local programs--including welfare, housing assistance and job training--suffer from a lack of coordination.

Administered Separately

Koch said these programs are administered separately by different agencies at various levels of government. In addition, she said, the efforts of local charitable organizations providing assistance to needy families are rarely integrated with those of the public sector.

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To ensure coordination, Project Self-Sufficiency calls for local task forces to be made up of representatives from governments and private business and industry. Koch said the success of the project will depend largely on the willingness of the private sector to identify prospective jobs and assist in job placement.

“The question for me was how could we better use existing resources to help the welfare mother trapped in a cycle of dependency,” Koch said. “It’s not a matter of funding not being there. It’s a matter of effective use of the money and getting more bang for the buck.”

Project directors said the program’s effectiveness may have been hampered by several shortcomings. While trying to relinquish control over social programs to the localities, HUD failed to provide them with the necessary resources to implement a truly successful job training and job placement program, they said.

Money Has Decreased

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Several project directors also said they found it inconceivable that HUD has asked localities to tap into job training and other federal grants. Appropriations for these programs have remained constant during the Reagan years, but because more localities are eligible for assistance, the money received by each city has decreased.

“Project Self-Sufficiency is a good concept,” said Rona Zevin, block grant administrator for the city of Seattle, “but HUD isn’t providing any administrative money, any services money or much direction. It’s a pretty unequal partnership.”

As a result of budget constraints, some localities are targeting single mothers already on the verge of self-sufficiency rather than the hard-core unemployed. In Hampton, Va., as opposed to Pasadena and Los Angeles County, the majority of single mothers selected for the project already had jobs but were still eligible for federal housing assistance.

Richard Pepe, the project director in Hampton, acknowledged that his city could have done more to recruit welfare mothers. He said Hampton will focus on this population during the second year of the project.

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Social Services Standpoint

“From a social services standpoint, our target group should have been those who couldn’t succeed without Project Self-Sufficiency,” Pepe said. “We should be taking more risks. That’s what a program like this is all about.”

Pepe, like project directors in several other cities, blamed HUD for the confusion, saying the federal agency failed to make clear the program’s target group until months after his city’s action plan was written.

“It wasn’t clear until June what their intentions were, and the program had been in existence for a year,” Pepe said.

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For some cities, the confusion has delayed implementation the program. HUD gave the localities a January deadline to complete their plans. In March, the federal agency issued more guidelines and forms, requiring some cities to revise their plans.

HUD official Koch conceded that her department sent mixed signals to the localities. But Koch defended the divergent approaches taken by the localities, saying differences in the types of families targeted was in keeping with the definition of a demonstration project.

Praised the Latitude

Several project directors agreed and praised the latitude given to them by HUD. They said regional differences precluded strict guidelines. In Orange County, for instance, the median income cited by HUD for a family of four is $33,700. This contrasts with Birmingham, Ala., another project site, where it is $25,000. Some sites, such as Los Angeles County, draw most of their participants from the concentration of impoverished living in or around the inner city, while social programs in Calexico, Calif., another demonstration site, serve a population of mostly Latino single mothers who work the grape and fruit fields of the Imperial Valley.

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“The very definition of a demonstration project is that some programs succeed and some programs fail,” said Jan Maurer, housing administrator for Redding, which has selected 18 of its 25 participants. “Only then can HUD determine what works and what doesn’t.”

In its guidelines for the cities and counties, HUD has stressed the importance of selecting single mothers who want to end a life style based on welfare and become economically independent. But project directors said it was difficult to measure motivation and that even withholding the housing as an incentive may not be enough to retain the participants.

Question of Motivation

“How do you know if someone is truly motivated?” Henry Rust, project director for Birmingham, asked. “Some individuals will say and do anything to get on Section 8. It’s only later that you find out they were never interested in the job component of the project.”

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But others said it was unfair and too simplistic to place the success or failure of the project on motivation alone. They say other factors--including the breakdown of the traditional family in the black community--are critical in understanding welfare dependency and the continued economic disparity between blacks and whites. This breakdown in family structure, they say, is tied to complex historical and social factors such as slavery, segregation and discrimination.

In addition to the inescapable link between family composition and poverty, local officials said, the goals of Project Self-Sufficiency are complicated by the need to find jobs for welfare mothers that offer medical insurance to replace Medi-Cal. Aware of this problem, many cities have designed their action plans around well-paying, non-traditional jobs for women such as welding and pipe fitting.

“Is self-sufficiency a realistic goal? I’m not sure,” said Celeste Cantu, project director in Calexico, which has selected all of its 30 participants. “It takes a $20,000-a-year job to make it worthwhile once you add in medical costs, transportation costs and the trade-offs of not being home with your children.

“The formula is not going to work for all families. What we’re doing is giving hope to 30 people and in the end that hope might not be converted into self-sufficiency.”

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