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Program to Cut Welfare Dependency Tested : Social services: Nonprofit group devises a strategy of education and support for teen-age mothers on public assistance. It shows promise of moving them to self-reliance, state officials say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has cost a consortium of private and public groups $9,500 to get Brooke Flores to where she is--on the brink of completing her high school education and entering college.

Without that investment, the state could expect to spend at least $51,000 over the next 20 years to support Flores and her young daughter in the welfare system.

Until she enrolled in an experimental program being tested at 16 sites throughout the nation, including three in California, Flores was a prime candidate for welfare dependency. At 19, she had no job skills, no high school education and responsibility for a 2-year-old daughter.

“I really didn’t try to get a job. I knew I needed to, but I also knew nobody would hire me,” she said recently. Now, she believes, she’ll have a far better chance.

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As welfare dependency has increasingly drawn attention from public officials such as California’s Gov. Pete Wilson, a study released Monday reports preliminary success with the comprehensive new program that is working to make Flores and hundreds of other teen-age mothers self-sufficient.

The initial report by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC) covered 930 participants.

Called New Chance, the program is aimed at the group considered most likely to spend their life on public assistance: teen-age mothers who drop out of high school.

A long-term approach to the problem of welfare dependency, the program becomes part of the debate on welfare reform just as political figures across the nation--from presidential candidates to Wilson--are proposing mostly cost-cutting solutions to the welfare problem. The preliminary data from the new program shows, however, that for the most disadvantaged teens, a “more comprehensive strategy” may be needed to attack welfare dependency.

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“The focus on prevention is one of the most innovative aspects of New Chance,” said Judith Gueron, president of MDRC, a nonprofit organization, founded by the Ford Foundation and several federal agencies in 1974, which designed the program. “Research has told us that if we don’t find a way to intervene early, a substantial number of these young women and their children will spend many years on welfare.”

Although the research showing that teen-age parents cope poorly on their own is extensive, Gueron said there was very little data indicating what kind of programs would help get them off the welfare rolls.

Using the one-stop shopping approach that social service agencies are increasingly adopting, the program provides classes that teach good work habits, parenting, child development, family planning and health. It also offers basic educational help toward achieving a high school equivalency certificate, known as a GED. In addition, it provides free child care and assigns each teen-ager a counselor/advocate.

Although the program has not reached the stage yet where enrollees will attempt to graduate to the job market, Gueron said the preliminary findings are promising. After the first four months of the program’s operation, at least three-quarters of the participants--all volunteers--were still enrolled. By the eighth month, about a fourth of these had received their GEDs and more than one-third had begun occupational skills training.

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Managers of the program reported observing other more subtle changes as the young women demonstrated improvement as parents and decision-makers.

Wilson is promoting passage of a ballot initiative that would cut welfare benefits by up to 25%, but state officials said New Chance does not conflict with the governor’s overall ideas on welfare reform.

“What (the Wilson Administration is) trying to do is make some very tough choices and put very limited dollars to the very best use,” said Kassy Perry, associate secretary of public affairs for the state Health and Welfare Agency. “The whole preventive approach is the best way.”

The New Chance program, she said, is a “model that makes sense.” But how well it works won’t be known until the success or failure of its graduates in the job market can be evaluated. “After two years, it’s looking real positive,” she said.

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While designers of New Chance attempted to anticipate all the needs of the teen-age mothers, individual managers said they have had to adjust to an array of unexpected problems.

At least half of the young mothers were “at risk of a diagnosis of depression,” the report said. Many did not have a stable place to live. Some were victims of physical abuse or used alcohol or illegal drugs. Others were discouraged from participating in the program by family members or boyfriends.

Joyce McCarthy, director of a New Chance program in Inglewood, said the immaturity of the participants made it difficult to teach job and parenting skills.

“It’s like going back and re-educating a 17- to 21-year-old who missed everything from Day 1,” she said. “They want instant fulfillment and they don’t understand it takes time to get from point A to point B. Two years to them seems like 200 and they cannot fathom doing something for two years in order to achieve a goal.”

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But after many months in the program, several participants who were interviewed said they acquired a desire to finish high school and go to college.

Maryellen Salas, 18, who quit the ninth grade when she became pregnant, said until she enrolled in the program she had just assumed that she would never be able to finish school or get a job to support herself and her daughter.

Without the program, said Salas, who lives in San Jose with her 2 1/2-year-old daughter. “I would probably be out there being a couch potato, watching TV and not doing anything.”


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