Originally created 07/13/97

Reform sparks actions



State officials in Georgia are now realizing what those in Augusta have known for months - welfare reform means government reform, too.

Those trying to find welfare clients permanent jobs will soon be coordinating with other state agencies that help with employment. An agreement between Department of Labor Commissioner David Poythress and Department of Human Resources Commissioner Tommy Olmstead was signed July 3, but details of the new arrangements won't be revealed until a statewide staff meeting July 23 in Macon, said Labor spokesman Sam Hall.

Labor realized that it often saw the same clients as DHR's Department of Family and Children Services.

"About 28 percent of people who come to the Labor Department are receiving some type of (government) assistance," Mr. Hall said. "So the Labor Department has been actively placing welfare recipients in jobs for a long time. It just hasn't been under a `welfare-to-work' heading."

The state's welfare reform rules, mandated by federal law a year ago, impose a lifetime limit of four years and require work or work equivalents for the able-bodied to continue to receive a check or food stamps. Counties are required to have at least 25 percent of their clients working, and that will rise to 30 percent Oct. 1, said Linda Johnson, Richmond County director.

That has forced DFCS to change its focus to finding people work as well, and naturally created some initial confusion among agencies, Mrs. Johnson said.

"We've not always known what the other agency clearly does so we can benefit," Mrs. Johnson said.

As DFCS caseworkers became job-seekers themselves, fanning out into Augusta to find job openings and opportunities for unpaid "work experience" positions for clients, they've gotten some training and advice from Labor staffers, Mrs. Johnson said. DFCS also has a Labor computer in its office listing job openings in the area, Mrs. Johnson said.

And rather than create its own "job readiness" training class, some DFCS clients are attending the biweekly classes at the Labor office, she said.

"We didn't need to reinvent the wheel," she said. The two agencies likely will have some kind of combined record-keeping to ensure successes aren't counted twice, once by each agency, Mr. Hall said.

All this cooperation will be needed now as the task becomes tougher. The initial 1,500 or so who moved into work may be those who are "let's just say a little more motivated," Mrs. Johnson said. Those numbers have boosted Richmond County's working clients to 38 percent, well above what's expected and seemingly high for the state, said DHR spokeswoman Joyce Goldberg.

"I think statewide we're probably over the 25 percent requirement for the first year" ending Sept. 30, she said. Because the federal government has set specific rules for how to count who is working, no official count has been made, she said.

Continuing to move people to work gets harder from now on, Mrs. Johnson said.

"The challenge is making sure we continue with those people who are a little harder to convince," she said.

And summertime is traditionally a more difficult time to find a job, Mr. Hall said. Not only are there recent graduates seeking work, but noncontract school employees such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers also are out of work during the summer, he said.

But that makes it all the more important to find meaningful work that will last for the client and break the cycle of dependence, Mrs. Johnson said.

"It's not just moving people off welfare, it's trying to move people out of poverty," she said.

And for that, they will need the help.