JACKSON – State employees in Lee County involved in the WorkFi

JACKSON – State employees in Lee County involved in the WorkFirst program designed to end the cycle of welfare dependency had found jobs for 42 clients as of last week.

“We feel real good about the program,” said Gerald Williams, office manager in Tupelo for the Mississippi Employment Security Commission. “We are still learning as we go.”

WorkFirst is being tested in six counties statewide. Besides Lee, the other pilot counties are Adams, Jones, Harrison, Hinds and Washington. Hinds was the first of the six to start the program on Oct. 16; Lee was the last on Dec. 15.

In those pilot counties, an attempt is made to find jobs in place of paying Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits and allotting food stamps for those eligible for welfare. People who refuse to participate in the WorkFirst program lose their benefits.

As of March 31, 27 people in Lee County had lost their benefits. In all six counties, 230 people have lost benefits. But Larry Temple, deputy administrator with the state Department of Human Services, said some of the people who lost benefits might have found a job on their own without going through the WorkFirst program. A study is also in the works to find out what happens to people who lose benefits.

But the bottom line, according to the author of the initial study of the WorkFirst program, is that the welfare rolls are declining faster in the six pilot counties than in the rest of the state.

Bill Brister, a Millsaps College professor, said the number of people receiving AFDC payments between September and April dropped 11.4 percent in the six pilot counties, compared to a 4.4 percent decrease for the rest of the state. The drop in Lee County was 17.3 percent.

Despite those positive figures, Don Taylor, executive director of the Department of Human Services, said he is not ready to expand the program beyond the six pilot counties. He said there are still problems to work out.

The WorkFirst program in Mississippi was created in 1993 in a bill written by then-state Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo. The Republican is now serving his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Before the program could be enacted, the state had to receive permission from the federal government. The Clinton administration gave its OK in December 1994. To expand past the original six counties, the state must get another federal waiver.

Problems

Before the program is expanded, Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said some problems need to be addressed.

Simmons, who serves on a joint legislative committee that oversees the Department of Human Services, heard a report on WorkFirst last week. He said he is concerned about what will happen to children when parents lose benefits for not participating.

“We do not want the child to be punished for the adult not participating,” Simmons said. By taking benefits away from the child for the actions of the parents, “you are only creating greater problems for the future. We must find some other way to punish the adults instead of harming the children.”

Simmons also said more emphasis should be placed on pre-employment training. That way, he said, the people pl

aced in employment might be better prepared to keep the job. For some of the AFDC recipients, the WorkFirst job will be their first.

And Simmons said he would like to see the placement level increase. According to the Millsaps College report, only 18.1 percent of the AFDC recipients in the program have been placed thus far.

Of 3,501 people who have gone through the program in the pilot counties, 633 have been placed. Of that number, 281 have been placed in subsidized jobs, meaning the employer only provides part of the salary and the rest of the pay comes from what was the AFDC and food stamp benefits. The state will subsidize the employer for up to six months. Of the 281 subsidized placements, 136 still are employed.

Taylor said the Department of Human Services would rather place the welfare recipients in unsubsidized jobs, meaning the employer pays all of the salary. Through March 31, 352 have been placed in unsubsidized jobs.

Positives

An employer in Tupelo, John Braddock of the CPA firm Miles/Braddock, said WorkFirst is working. The company has hired a WorkFirst participant to perform various office-related functions.

“It is working out for us,” Braddock said, adding that the program is helping his company fill a need while providing a job for someone who needs one.

For the WorkFirst program to work, the employers and various government agencies must cooperate. In the six pilot counties, staff from the Employment Security Commission is set up in the Department of Human Services offices.

When someone comes in to apply for AFDC or food stamps, they are sent to the Employment Security Commission staff to start the search for a job. Some are provided with training, including interview techniques, before they go out to look for a job.

There also is staff on hand to try to work out child-care and transportation problems.

About 25 percent of welfare clients are exempt from the program for various reasons, including having a small child or health-related problems.

Statewide, there are 48,000 mothers receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits and 180,000 families are receiving food stamps. Food stamps are provided if a family’s income falls below a certain level. Someone could be in the WorkFirst program and still receive food stamps, but not AFDC payments.

The average WorkFirst employee is making $5.80 per hour.

Click video to hear audio