Riverside Plan Puts Welfare Recipients on Job Track : Social services: GAIN shows participants how to find work. Plan has reduced county's payments $16.8 million.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As California and the nation consider welfare reform, they might do well to consider the oh-so-simple observations of 29-year-old Sophia Elsman, unemployed mother of two.

The first time she was on welfare--seven years ago--picking up her check was humiliating for her, business-as-usual for the bureaucracy.

"They didn't motivate you to get off welfare," she recalled. "It was like: 'So, you're on welfare? No big deal. Here's your check. See ya next time.' "

Well, Elsman is back on welfare again, picking up a check for $312 on the 1st and 15th of the month. She is a homemaker, separated from her husband, caring for an 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.

But when she showed up this time at the Riverside County Department of Social Services, things were different.

"Now," she said, "they want me to get a job."

In the numbing world of social services bureaucracy--of endless study and process--Riverside County is pursuing a notion so obvious as to be stupefying. The key, officials say, is simply to get welfare recipients into jobs as quickly as possible.

"It's something people have a hard time dealing with," said Terry Welborn, a mid-level manager in the county's welfare department. "It's something any 10-year-old kid could tell you, but a doctorate in sociology can't: If you want people to get off welfare, you stay on their backs until they get a job."

A national research organization reported last week that California's 7-year-old work welfare program known as GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence) is having substantial success in placing welfare recipients into jobs and thereby reducing welfare costs to the state, based on a study of those who participated in GAIN from 1988 to 1990.

And the most effective GAIN program is in Riverside County, researchers found.

Single-parent GAIN participants in Riverside County earned 55% more money than welfare recipients here who did not participate in the program, according to the two-year study by the New York-based Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.

Over the same two-year period, GAIN participants in San Diego County increased earnings by 22% and ranked second behind Riverside; GAIN participants in Los Angeles County increased their income 4%.

Los Angeles' figures were low, researchers said, because an extraordinary number of GAIN recipients needed the most basic education before they could enter the job market or because they could not speak English. In addition, Los Angeles' GAIN was less advanced than other programs when the study was conducted.

The GAIN program offers an array of services, including education, training, job search assistance, transportation and child care.

But the state offers its counties flexibility in administering the GAIN program, and the Riverside County welfare chief has distilled the philosophy to the bare bones:

We want you to get a job, now, said Lawrence Townsend Jr., director of Riverside County's Department of Public Social Services. We're not going to train you for years; we're not going to send you to school for years. We're going to show you how to apply for a job, interview for a job, dress for a job and find a job. Then you're going to get a job. It may be an entry-level job, but at least your foot is in the door and how well you succeed from there is up to you.

And if you do not cooperate with us, this bureaucrat said, we will take you off welfare. Your children will still get money from us, but you won't. Get the message?

In a government bureaucracy that can be lost in numbers, this county offers three sets of its own, even newer, figures to show its success.

* Last year, 3.5% of the state's welfare population lived in Riverside County, yet 19.5% of the welfare recipients in California who got jobs were from this county.

* In the 31,000 families receiving welfare in Riverside County last year, primarily single-parent households, 7,500 members got jobs. Before GAIN, the county was lucky just to get 2,000 people a year into jobs and off welfare.

* The GAIN project cost Riverside County about $8.5 million annually--representing federal, state and local funds. Yet because of the number of people who graduated from GAIN and got jobs, the county reduced its welfare payments by $16.8 million over a recent 12-month period.

Simply put, GAIN not only paid for itself but essentially made a nearly 2-for-1 return on investment.

Riverside County's secret is keeping all eyes on the same target--job placements--without being distracted by the bureaucratic process or putting too much emphasis on education or vocational training, said Welborn, one of three regional managers for GAIN in Riverside County.

Welborn, a veteran of many government social programs with acronyms--CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), WIN (Work Incentive Program) and others--says he has never seen a program work as well as GAIN.

"It's so simple, people just don't believe it. They think we're using some sort of magic formula to get outstanding results. We're not. We're just using common sense," Welborn said.

He credits his boss, Townsend, "for not encumbering his people with a bushel of regulations." Instead, he said, Townsend has instilled a spirit of cutting to the chase--of placing welfare recipients in jobs, period. The county's regional offices even compete among themselves to rack up job placements.

When people in Riverside County enroll for welfare, they are screened to see if they qualify for GAIN. They are eligible if: They are at least 18 but not yet 60; they are not pregnant beyond the fourth month or, if they are single parents, they do not have any children at home younger than 3; they do not have to care for someone disabled at home; they are physically able to work, and they live within an hour of the GAIN offices in Riverside, Palm Springs and Hemet.

If the person needs help learning English, or does not have a high school degree and cannot read or compute math at the ninth-grade level, he or she is enrolled in an adult school near home to develop those skills. And if the school brings the person's reading or math level up, it is given a cash bonus of $300 from GAIN for each grade level the person rises.

If the person has at least a ninth-grade education, he or she is sent to school to earn a general education degree--the equivalent of a high school diploma.

But the thrust is not on education or training, said Townsend. It is getting a job.

"We give our people just enough education to help them get a job," he said. "Advanced degrees and continuing education (are) good, but I really question whether it's fair for taxpayers--especially if they don't have a college degree of their own--to pay for ongoing welfare costs and education costs for a welfare recipient to go to college. Where's the equity in that?"

Townsend's philosophy is to replace the classroom with "a lot of motivation, a lot of support, a lot of encouragement--and firmness in moving them toward employment so they can take care of themselves and their families."

If a GAIN participant needs child care, the county contracts with a local provider. If transportation is needed to participate in GAIN activities, the county provides it.

Riverside's initial goal is to quickly push welfare recipients into GAIN, assess their job skills and assign them to a weeklong "Job Club," where they are given sound, real-world advice in how to get a job.

The five-day, 20-hour-long seminar tackles the nuts and bolts of how to find work. How to get past secretaries to talk to the personnel manager. How to find jobs that have not yet been advertised in the newspaper. How to sell one's personal skills, even if they are nothing more than running the car pool to school. Hey, that's time management and organization, the seminar leader will tell you.

The Job Club runs the participants through mock interviews and offers hints about how to answer the tough questions, such as when the interviewer asks the applicant about his weaknesses.

"Turn your weakness into a strength," advised Julie Savage, a job training facilitator, at a seminar last week. "Instead of saying: 'I don't have a lot of experience,' say: 'I can quickly learn whatever job you want me to do, the way you want me to do it.' "

After the job interview training is completed, the class is sent to the office phones and stacks of Yellow Pages, and they make cold calls on companies. Job openings are shared, then posted on a wall for others to consider as well.

Looking much like how a teacher posts the names of exemplary students on a classroom wall, a wall in the Riverside GAIN office is decorated with star-shaped paper cutouts, listing the names of GAIN graduates who have found jobs.

If the participant fails to cooperate, refuses or quits a job, or does not go to school or participate in other activities if required, he forfeits his welfare grant and receives only the money due his dependents, if any.

That financial sanction is allowed under the federal Jobs Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program that led to California's GAIN project, but officials say Riverside seems to use it more aggressively than other counties.

Townsend explains it this way: "Of course you have the option of not participating with us. If you don't, we will very cheerfully apply the sanction."

The GAIN study found that about 11% of Riverside's GAIN participants were recommended for sanction and that about half of those were sanction for non-cooperation.

GAIN participants should not expect to get great jobs when they leave the gate, he added.

"Many recipients want a good job, right now," Townsend said. "But we're looking at the longer range. We tell our people: 'Get yourself into a job, any job that you are able to, and work hard, follow the rules, make yourself valuable, follow directions and don't give them a bunch of lip. If you do your job well and reliably, your employer won't want to lose you and will pay you more money to keep you around. They'll promote you. We've seen it time and time again.' "

Low-paying jobs do not necessarily take a recipient off welfare, but they do lead to reduced welfare payments and savings to the state.

The urgency to get a job--any job--distinguished Riverside's GAIN program from others, said James Riccio, chief author of the GAIN study.

"While they (offered) a lot of education and training, they encouraged people to look for (job) opportunities . . . and not be especially fussy about holding out for a high-paying job and not necessarily assume that the better route off welfare is to just stay in education and training in hopes of getting preparation for a high-paying job down the road," Riccio said.

Terri Michael, 33, a single mother of three, put it this way: "They don't seem to give you a choice about getting a job."

Ironically, Michael previously worked as an eligibility specialist for Riverside County's housing authority. She quit that job to work at her husband's auto repair shop, but they have since separated and now she finds herself on the other side of the eligibility interview desk. She remembers feeling so embarrassed by her reversal that she wore sunglasses to the welfare office and hoped that none of her previous clients would recognize her name when it was called.

"What's best about this program is their attitude about you--they're very 'up' for you," Michael said. "They give you the tools to get a job. Their attitude isn't at all condescending. I'm getting the kind of professional attention here as I would if I was paying someone for this same kind of advice. It's great."

GAIN's job placement specialists also look for jobs for their "clients." Debbie Samuel estimates that she found 100 jobs last year at companies that have come to rely on GAIN graduates as a steady and reliable pool of employees.

One of her favorites is Cross Country Wireless Cable, a local cable TV firm that has hired more than a dozen GAIN alumni.

"If I need somebody, I need them yesterday, so I call GAIN," said Paul Bealer, the company's sales and marketing manager. "We can do the training as long as they're eager to learn--and they've been fantastic."

Scott Brown, 25, lost his job as an aerospace fabricator at Rohr Industries in Riverside and admitted that he bummed around for a year, luckless in finding a new job and feeling down and out.

He went through the GAIN program and was hired at Cross Country, which trained him for his new job. "Once I went through GAIN, everything clicked," he said. "The staff had the right approach, the program, the tools, and it all made sense."

Kerri Becker, 25, went on welfare three years ago after the birth of her child, enrolled in GAIN and is working at Cross Country as a receptionist.

"Welfare Momma, that was me," she said of her plight three years ago. "I remember when they put me in that Job Club and I was laughing, thinking, 'Yeah, right, they're gonna get me a job?' I thought I was just going through the motions."

But despite previous failures in even getting job interviews, she had eight interviews and two job offers while in GAIN. "I was having no luck on my own, but these people gave me the tricks I needed, the confidence. Now, the 1st and 15th (of the month) mean nothing to me. I'm off welfare and I feel great."

Times staff writer Virginia Ellis contributed to this report.

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