Welfare Reform Hits Home

Bill Rice- At the Spanish American Committee offices on Cleveland's West Side, things sound pretty business-as-usual on this Thursday morning. A few clients wait in the lobby, here to take advantage of the variety of services the Committee provides low income, mostly Hispanic residents. Most of the agency's programs are still in place. But one, a job readiness program run under contract for the county, is on hiatus, says program director Efrain Soto.

Efrain Soto- The status of the program now is yes, the contract has ended, and I understand the county is going to start writing contracts on the fiscal year. And we're waiting for them to complete the process so we can start again.

BR- The Spanish American Committee is one of more than a hundred private community agencies Cuyahoga County has contracted to provide a variety of welfare-related programs. Most of them are support-related: County officials have long maintained that services like child-care and transportation subsidies, help with rent, and job skills training are integral to helping welfare recipients become self sufficient, and that community groups were best suited to provide them. Betty Meyer heads the county's Health and Human Service Department.

Betty Meyer- We've had significantly less dollars to put into contracts with community agencies to provide svcs for families - both to get families working and also the kinds of svcs we think have helped families stay working.

BR- Meyer says most of more than 100 such contracts expired on June 30th. She says the county is now looking at new proposals. But the dramatic decrease in state funding for welfare-to-work programs - the county got $44 million this year, compared to $106 million last year - means money is much tighter.

BM- We will be entering into contracts at a very much reduced number, both participants and dollars-wise.

BR- Meyer predicts feels cutting back support services for those trying to make the transition from welfare-to-work could have detrimental effects on welfare reform efforts. People can't work if they don't have stable housing, reliable child care or job skills, she says. And once they go to work, they still can't escape poverty wages without additional job skills training. Welfare reform, Meyer says, is more than removing people from the welfare roles.

BM- The commissioners agreement with the community was that the job was not finished until people had a job that would truly allow them to support their family without reliance on government.

BR- The state funding situation so hampers that effort, Meyer and other county officials say, that they're resorting to legal means to try to have it restored. They say the diversion of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF funds - which is federal money - away from welfare-related programs and into other areas like education, goes against the spirit, if not the letter, of the federal welfare reform passed back in 1997. Jimmy Dimora is President of the three-member county commission.

Jimmy Dimora- The Congress earmarked, they said specifically these dollars are for TANF recipients and for programs and services to help TANF recipients get off welfare and make them self-sufficient. It didn't say "State of Ohio, you can use those dollars any way you saw fit.

BR- Dimora says the county will file a lawsuit against the state making that claim, both in federal and state court, probably by the end of the month.

Not only is the state cutting way back on public assistance funding, but there's also growing concern that a slowing economy could eventually make it even tougher for people leaving welfare to find jobs. Health and Human Services Chief Betty Meyer says this has not become a problem yet in Cuyahoga County, but it could. And other advocates for the poor are worried - not just about state cutbacks or an economic slowdown, but about the increasingly bleak outlook for Cleveland's poor they may create. Efrain Soto, at the Spanish American Committee, says his organization continues to provide support services to the extent that it can.

ES- The only difference is that they don't report their activities to the county. The county isn't responsible for that.

BR- The six people who ran the job readiness program that's now on hold, Soto says, are working in other departments. The Committee, just like many other community-based agencies, has submitted proposals for new contracts to the county. But, he says, those proposals may go unfulfilled since there are far fewer welfare-related dollars to go around. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.

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