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Public Sector Strains To Fill Welfare Gap

Reforms spur US, state agencies to hire the poor

Here's how the economy looks to many Americans: Growth is humming along. Unemployment and inflation are at a 30-year low. Stocks are soaring.

Here's how the economy looks to many Americans on welfare: Unemployment in the low-end job market hangs stubbornly above 20 percent. One-third of all unskilled laborers work part-time or on an irregular basis. Jobs in inner cities are hard to come by.

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To people on the bottom rungs, job prospects are already as bleak as a Siberian landscape in winter. In the absence of a broad welfare safety net, how will these Americans survive, some ask, if and when the economy goes sour?

For some states, and now for federal agencies, part of the answer may be government jobs.

President Clinton endorsed the idea over the weekend, ordering US agencies to hire former welfare recipients as "worker trainees." Doing so, he said, will set an example for businesses and nonprofit organizations. The president has already urged the private sector to do its part to hire people who - under the welfare-reform law passed last summer - will lose cash benefits after two years on the rolls.

But the idea may be more about politics than effective policy, meant to soothe critics of welfare reform on the left. Federal agencies, never a prolific source of low-end jobs, are shrinking. Moreover, states such as Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Vermont are already trying public-sector job programs with mixed and inconclusive results.

"It is curious to put this forth as something that will make a big difference - given the timing," says Jean Rogers, a welfare-reform administrator at the Wisconsin Department of Social Services. "Government should focus on expectations for the private sector. Community-service jobs are not a replacement for regular work."

The welfare reforms Clinton signed into law last year ended the 61-year guarantee of federal assistance to poor families. The president's announcement Saturday does not represent a new job guarantee from the federal government, but it does count as one more attempt to soften the impact of last year's reform law.

"What we are about to see is the rhetoric of welfare reform put to the test," says Evelyn Brodkin, an expert on welfare at the University of Chicago. "Can the labor market absorb 1 million new low-income workers annually? If you look at all the sectors, they have one thing in common: All are downsizing."

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Several states have or are considering similar public-employment measures. The Florida Senate last week asked state agencies to submit plans for hiring welfare recipients. Later this year, Wisconsin will start a community-service program as part of its plan to move the state's entire caseload into jobs or practice jobs.

Even with government job creation, however, social-policy officials in these states say the private sector is the critical link.

In Grant County, Wis., for example, joblessness stands at 9 percent, well above the national average. Welfare caseloads, however, have dropped 80 percent under a program encouraging businesses to hire recipients.

"In a majority of cases," Ms. Rogers says, "there is a high ability with short-term [government] involvement to move recipients into the private sector ... if the program is truly oriented toward working with the employer community." Part of Grant County's success, she notes, comes from pure shoe-leather effort: A majority of low-end jobs are not advertised.

Even where states are already trying to provide public-sector jobs for graduating recipients, officials are wary of states' long-term ability to do so. "At what stage to we hit the next downturn?" asks Don Winstead, Florida's welfare-reform administrator. "The last prolonged recession doubled our caseload. If that were to happen again, we'd expect the state legislature and Congress to look at extending benefits."

As for Washington, some experts doubt the federal government would be able to hire exiting welfare recipients even if agencies weren't scaling back. "The federal government doesn't have a lot of low-skill jobs," Professor Brodkin says. "So what does this do for single mother" without a high school education? "How does it pay her child care? It's hard to see how you put the pieces together."

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