Storm Warning

If You're On Welfare, The Time To Start Looking For A Job Is Now.
By Dan Huff 

A WARNING TO the unemployed among Pima County's 10,000 welfare families: The time to start looking for work is right now.

About 1,000 unemployed county residents on the dole--more than 95 percent of whom are female heads of households--will discover there's no tomorrow when it comes to picking up their welfare checks this November.

That's when the welfare "reform" hammer falls in earnest, and the first big wave of checks stops dead for those who could be working, but aren't.

Arizona, which started early, is running a year and a half ahead of most other states in the process of dumping its welfare-dependent potential workers, roughly 95 percent of whom are single female heads of households.

"Clearly there's a big problem coming down the line," says Hank Atha, head of the county's Community Services Division. "The time to take this seriously is now. Go to your caseworker or counselor and tell them you're very serious and you want to move into a job as quickly as possible."

Atha notes many people with skills and education have already moved fairly easily into jobs. But those left on the rolls will have to move, too.

"And the bulk of these people will be lacking skills," he says. "They may not be very easily trained as employees, even though they may be very motivated, very anxious to work."

At least there's a tiny bit of help available.

It comes in the form of training-for-employment programs for those who must seek work. The best place to go, Atha advises, is the One Stop Center operated by the county.

"They'll put you through a two-week course that talks about solving childcare and transportation problems, how you should dress, how to do a résumé--employment-seeking skills," Atha says. "Sometimes it sounds like it isn't nearly enough, but for a lot of people it's a very useful tool."

And your chances of getting into that program--if you can afford to wait month or so--are virtually 100 percent, he says, adding, "At least you'll have a good head start on November."

But if you're looking for a government-sponsored job-training program to teach you marketable skills well above the burger-flipping level, well, lotsa luck.

There are currently only a handful of slots open in such programs, and only a few more will open up in July, when the county gets an infusion of federal funds.

"Unfortunately, there's only room for a few in these programs," Atha admits. "We can't begin to touch the 1,000 people who'll go off the rolls in November."

In other words, welfare moms without marketable skills soon will be kicked off the rolls with no real provision for training beyond minimum-wage jobs. Which means they'll soon be in deep trouble.

How did this happen?

Atha says the federal formula used to calculate job-training funds is badly out of whack for Tucson, which is plagued not so much by unemployment--the current rate is 3.6 to 3.8 percent--but by chronic underemployment, a factor not as heavily weighted in the formula as it should be for our community.

As a result, during the last seven years, Pima County has been denied a total of roughly $6 million in adult and youth job-training funds, Atha estimates. That loss certainly wasn't enough to eradicate poverty here, Atha admits, but he says it could have made a big difference in a lot of people's lives.

Now it appears the situation will be worsening: "The prospect for large amounts of federal (job-training) funds is not going to get better," he says.

Those are ominous words in a state where 77,000 families with working heads of households are stuck below the federal poverty level (roughly $16,500 for a family of four). According to U.S. Census data recently cited by the Children's Action Alliance, more than half of Arizona's working poor families are headed by a married couple, one of whom probably has a high-school degree. And working families were 82 percent more likely to be poor in the early 1990s than in the mid 1970s, according to the Census.

The Children's Action Alliance's conclusion is stark: "Work alone is not enough to lift families out of poverty."

But that apparently hopeless situation shouldn't stop welfare recipients from seeking work, Atha warns.

He also calls on employers--in government and the private sector--to "get serious behind the effort to loosen hiring rules and expectations and to work with whoever in the community wants to work." He asks employers to devote more effort to training and placing former welfare recipients, as well as show patience with people trying to learn new skills while solving the difficult problems of transportation and childcare.

Need help finding a job? The One Stop Center, 1039 N. Stone Ave., offers several levels of free assistance, from simple seminars on how to go about looking for work, to help preparing résumés and national job-market searches, as well as advice on where to find the best and most affordable skills-training programs. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and no appointment is necessary. For more information, call 770-9508. TW

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