Project Aimed at Helping Refugees Gain Independence

State and federal officials hope that a tough demonstration project recently implemented in California will push refugee newcomers toward self-sufficiency and keep them off welfare and out of the underground economy.

The Refugee Demonstration Project, a three-year pilot program growing out of the state's frustration over high welfare dependency rates, does not affect refugees who have been here two years or more.

It seeks to increase job participation for newly arrived refugees through a combination of work incentives and stricter enforcement of sanctions. The incentives include eliminating a law that cuts off welfare benefits when the head of a household works part time and logs 100 or more hours a month.

Throughout the project, participants working part time will get supplementary welfare income and Medi-Cal so that they will not earn less than they would on full welfare benefits. The hope is that by the end of the project refugees who began working part time at minimum wage will have advanced enough to earn their way off welfare.

"What is clear is that the prior system failed," said Walter Barnes, chief of the state's Office of Refugee Services. "It gave us a welfare dependency rate of more than 50%. Now at least we've got a system in place that has employment as its goal."

But county officials and resettlement workers throughout the state said the new program sets unrealistic goals. They predicted that most refugees will become fully reliant on welfare once their participation in the project has ended after 36 months.

They said the project wrongly assumes that the 100-hour cutoff is a disincentive to work. If that were the case, they argued, refugees would have been working 80 to 90 hours a month and then arbitrarily stopping. Instead, they are not working at all, or are working in underground jobs.

Low-Paying Jobs

Several county officials criticized as shortsighted the project's emphasis on immediate employment after only a few months of language and vocational training. They said it doomed refugees to low-paying jobs that, in the end, could not compete with the combination of welfare and Medi-Cal benefits.

For example, in Los Angeles County from April through September of 1986, only 24% of the 438 refugees who sought employment without first attending vocational or English classes actually found jobs, county figures show.

"What kind of job can you get a refugee from a Third World country with a few weeks of training?" asked Alette Lundeberg, a Santa Clara County refugee program administrator. "The federal government wants to avoid long-term training because it's very expensive. But nothing else is going to work for these people."

But Barnes cautioned that the program had just completed its first year and needed more time.

"It may be unrealistic to expect refugees to work their way off of welfare with very little training," he said, "but we won't know that for several more months."

Dependent on Welfare

Barnes said the large population of refugees already dependent on welfare and working in the underground economy would be affected by California's new workfare law.

The law, which will be implemented by every California county by late 1988, requires that all able-bodied welfare recipients look for employment. Those who do not find jobs must choose between options such as enrolling in training programs or finishing their education.

After completing job training or schooling, participants will again be required to look for work. Those still unable to find jobs will have to participate in community service-type jobs for one year.

But county officials overseeing the implementation of workfare acknowledged that its impact on the Southeast Asian underground economy would probably be minimal.

They said that an estimated two-thirds of the welfare households will be exempt from workfare for a variety or reasons, including having a child under the age of 6. In two-parent households, only one parent--typically the father--will be required to participate. Refugee mothers thus will be unrestricted in seeking underground jobs.

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