A $5 million grant to the Institute for Policy Studies will examine whether thousands of the hardest-to-employ can move off the welfare rolls and into good-paying jobs, if given proper skills training and credible documentation of those skills.
The welfare-to-work grant, awarded to Hopkins by the U.S. Department of Labor, was among 75 grants totaling $273 million recently announced by Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman.
The Hopkins grant funds a three-year demonstration study in 10 communities across the country, including Baltimore.
Called the Career Transcript System, the Hopkins project will begin in January and will focus on the idea that welfare recipients with the longest odds of finding good-paying jobs--those with substance abuse problems, poor work histories and poor literacy skills--need more than things like day care, transportation and job training.
Getting them jobs is not the problem, said Arnold H. Packer, a senior fellow at IPS and the project's principal investigator. In fact, it's easy for such people to find themselves trapped in a series of low-paying menial jobs, without opportunities to learn skills on the job, get credit for such learning or advance into higher-paying positions.
"Our theory is that the difficulty today is not finding a job; it's getting on a career ladder that allows you to earn a decent living," Packer said. "There's no way you can bring up a family on $10,000 to $12,000 a year.
"So in order to get ahead you need to acquire skills and have a believable record to document those skills," he added.
At the core of the study project will be a partnership between the welfare recipient, a local community college and an employer, Packer explained. In all 10 communities in the study, the community college will work with the welfare recipients and local employers.
The college will supply some training and a workplace liaison, someone to help both the employee and the employer. The employer will supply a job, opportunities to learn on the job and documentation of the skills acquired.
Employees will commit to learning and improving job skills. Employers will benefit by having a more stable workforce and employees who are more skillful and productive.
One of the 10 areas with which Hopkins will be working is a four-county area along the southeast coast of Florida, in an effort that will be coordinated by the Indian River Community College.
Robert Moses, assistant vice president of planning and development for Indian River, said his group is excited to be working with Hopkins on this project and is looking forward to getting started. Indian River has a long history of welfare-to-work programs and believes the Hopkins idea can work.
"We could start tomorrow," he said.
Throughout the 10 communities serviced by this study, there are approximately 18,000 to 20,000 welfare recipients, and, of those, about 3,000 fall into the category of the hardest to employ, Packer said.
They are defined as having at least two of the three following problems: substance abuse, poor work history or poor literacy.
Thus, over the course of the three-year study, Packer said he hoped the study might help several thousands of welfare recipients be nurtured along a path of skills development and skills documentation, allowing them to get better-paying jobs and hope for careers.
"We would like to demonstrate that the system can be changed from one based on punishments and sanctions to one based on rewards, in which welfare clients and their employers can be proud of the skills they are building," Packer said. "What we're trying to build is a lifelong learning system that starts no later than high school and extends through your working life."
The $273 million in grants, which fund 75 projects in 44 states, is the second block of awards to be made for innovative welfare-to-work programs. The money comes from $3 billion in welfare-to-work funds negotiated in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act.
A third round of awards will be made sometime in the future.
The 10 communities involved in the study are Baltimore County, Md.; Chicago; Cumberland County, Maine.; Davenport, Iowa; Hartford, Conn.; Long Beach, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; the state of Rhode Island; St. Lucie, Fla.; and Yuma, Ariz.