Reforms move people off welfare into workplace

Posted: Saturday, March 02, 2002

Reforms enacted five years ago are changing how area agencies approach welfare clients, and one Kenai Peninsula organization received the governor's stamp of approval for its innovations.

In December, Gov. Tony Knowles honored the Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse as a recipient of a WorkStar award for its efforts. In addition to hiring a long-term welfare client and working with her to improve her workplace skills, CICADA secured a grant which allowed it to implement new programs focusing on women's services.

"By our own admission we were not real effective with women clientele," said Henry Novak, executive director for CICADA. "We wanted to raise the performance across the board of women on welfare with domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse (issues)."

Women who are dealing with such things are going to have a hard time doing well at work, said Novak.

So, in conjunction with the Peninsula Job Center, the Women's Resource and Crisis Center's Transitional Living Center, Central Peninsula Counseling Services and the Department of Labor, CICADA has started classes teaching women skills that will help them get off of welfare permanently.

Susan Lacey, work services supervisor for the job center, nominated CICADA for its efforts.

"What it's done has really filled in a gap in the community in serving clients because it was difficult to get in to one of these (organizations) without a month or two or three window," she said. "Now with this grant, the clients can get in right away. It has opened a door to see a counselor more quickly."

The life skills and healthy lifestyles classes are open to men and women and are well attended, said Lacey. The classes deal not only with substance abuse, mental health problems and domestic violence, but also such topics as nutrition, parenting and healthy relationships.

"(The peninsula) is very rural and spread out -- a big area with a small population," Novak said. "A lot of people are from somewhere else without extended family for support."

The peninsula can be isolating for a women with low job skills, child care problems and no extended family to lean on, he said.

Kenai Peninsula families and others nationwide will soon arrive at the 60-month time limit placed upon their benefits by welfare reforms enacted in 1997.

While Novak said the time limit is a looming problem, the best CICADA can hope to do is give women the skills they need to survive life without welfare assistance.

"I see us getting better at working together," said Novak of the cooperation between his organization and others. "To have a collaboration like this with a much closer working relationship, we all are much more aware of what others are doing."

According to a study by the University of Alaska Anchorage, almost 90 percent of recipients who have left welfare are women typically with two children.

"A big chunk of the women living in poverty on the peninsula are single women and mothers," Novak said. "It is a big problem in this community that there are so many women living on or below the poverty line. In order to deal with them effectively we need to focus on them. "

CICADA took its own advice and hired a temporary assistance client, working with her extensively until her welfare file could be closed. For its work on an individual basis, Lacey wanted to reward CICADA, but one of the primary reasons she nominated the council was because of the impact its programs have had on the coordination between peninsula organizations.

"What we have seen as one of biggest benefits is that it has really brought together other resources in the community. Instead of having three different case managers we come together at one table and all three or four work together jointly."

Having case workers on the same page is helping clients get back out into the work force faster and with more knowledge, said Lacey.

"CICADA as a whole has been extremely supportive with our clientele. Their issues are getting resolved more quickly. I think what it is doing is helping identify issues -- getting them into a healthy lifestyle and getting them back into the job market," said Lacey.

According to state statistics, the average welfare caseload in Alaska has declined 39 percent since the implementation of the 1997 reforms, and caseloads are at their lowest in 12 years.

What are recipients doing if they are no longer depending on governmental support? According to the Division of Public Assistance, 65 percent of them are working or participating in work-related activities. To the state and other agencies, work-related encompasses anything focused on long-term employability such as on the job training, post secondary education and technical training.

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