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  • Michele Steeb is CEO of St. John's Shelter for Women and Children.

  • Chet Hewitt is president and CEO of Sierra Health Foundation.

Viewpoints: Real reform of welfare waits to be fully realized

Published: Sunday, Jun. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Monday, Jun. 10, 2013 - 8:53 am

"Give a person a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

As the California economy recovers, we should be working to ensure that the state's welfare-to-work program, CalWORKs, is effectively teaching and incentivizing welfare recipients to fish – to become self-reliant.

At St. John's, Sacramento County's largest shelter and the only one exclusively focused on homeless mothers and their children, we're eyeball-to-eyeball with the workings – and non-workings – of CalWORKs.

Like many organizations that took the promise of welfare reform seriously, St. John's provides a path to independence for those we assist. Our continuum includes shelter as well as classes and counseling to address the root causes of each family's homelessness. When mothers are ready, we move them into "real-world job training" at our restaurant, Plates Cafe & Catering, or at First Steps, our child development center. As they prove themselves there, we move them into supportive housing while they complete employment training and eventually secure employment.

We are, in essence, practitioners of self-reliance.

Despite what has been a struggling economy, we have placed 93 percent of our employment-training graduates in jobs. Yet only 25 percent of the mothers who enter our shelter choose to participate in either of our employment training programs. And of those who begin employment training, only 40 percent complete and graduate from this program.

It should thus be no surprise that of the roughly 2,500 mothers who have come through the doors of St. John's since 2007, approximately 100 of these 2,500 mothers now work. In other words, well more than 90 percent of the mothers continue to rely primarily on welfare to support their families.

When President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform legislation in 1996, he hoped it would be a day "remembered not for what it ended but for what it began – a new day that offers hope, honors responsibility and rewards work. …"

Too many struggling families in California have not yet seen that day.

Statewide, a May 2012 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 25 percent of parents in CalWORKs worked in non-subsidized employment. Of those, the average number of hours worked was 22 per week – despite a federal mandate of 30 hours. Why? With 12 percent of the nation's population, California supports 33 percent of its welfare caseload, the same study says.

Welfare recipients should not just be encouraged to work, they should be provided the tools to do so. There should be clear incentives that reward program participants for securing and maintaining employment.

And finally, those in the system should not be forced to make a choice between getting or keeping a job and holding on to the benefits they need to keep their families afloat.

What is the right mix of incentives? That varies by family, of course, but here are some broad areas of change to consider:

• Require counties to fund employment-training programs that have demonstrable levels of success.

• Reward those parents just entering the workforce and those who show upward mobility in their employment with extended child care subsidies to make it easier for them to work. Those subsidies have been significantly reduced over the past several years, further discouraging work.

• Link getting a General Educational Development diploma with work requirements. Persons with a GED or high school diploma have a much easier time finding and keeping a job, according to the PPIC study and other studies.

• Create a time limit during which parents must find a non-government-subsidized job or be engaged in meaningful volunteer activity – and progressively increase sanctions if they do not.

• Consider small bonus payments or rewards earned by achieving employment, education or meaningful volunteer-related benchmarks. One of California's most recent McArthur Foundation "genius award" winners, Maurice Lim Miller, is demonstrating that incentives can have a powerful and positive impact on the decisions made, and behaviors adopted, by poor families.

• Eliminate the Catch-22 of housing subsidies. If a parent is lucky enough to secure what is called a "Section 8" or "Shelter Plus" voucher for housing, they, too, should be subject to work requirements.

Society needs to give a hand up to people who hit tough times.

And some need more than just temporary help. Some of the mothers we see truly want to become self-sustaining but do not want to gamble away the guarantee of cash assistance for the possibility of a low-wage job and the resulting loss of benefits. The vast majority choose what seems to be the easier path – continuing to rely on the public assistance to take care of themselves and their families.

The CalWORKs system too often doles out fish. By doing so, we are holding back the families the system was intended to help. Intentionally or not, we are fostering dependency by failing to provide the array of supports and incentives required to make the attainment of self-sufficiency the obvious, achievable and most rewarding goal to which a family can aspire. We need to recover the goal of helping families transition successfully and efficiently from dependence to independence.

Just think how much better off CalWORKs families and all Californians would be if the prospect of a rising economy were matched with the promise of true welfare reform.

Michele Steeb is CEO of St. John's Shelter for Women and Children. Chet Hewitt is president and CEO of Sierra Health Foundation.

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