by Jean Taddie
One of the primary goals of the new federal welfare reform law is to get people off of the welfare rolls and into jobs. At the same time that cash, food stamp, and child day-care benefits are being reduced, recipients of welfare are being required to work as a condition of their benefits. According to a Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, “Under TANF, the required work hours generally will rise from an average of 20 hours weekly in 1997 to 25 hours in 1999 and ultimately increase to 30 in 2000.” If no jobs are available for welfare recipients, they will be put to work by the government doing community service work.
Since the new federal reform is dependent on jobs, it is very necessary that there be good jobs available. People on welfare often lack the skills that are in high demand. Without these skills, it is more difficult to find a job with benefits that pays enough to raise a family. Learning more marketable skills could help people, unfortunately, federal welfare reform does not protect the education of our nation’s low-income workforce.
Federal welfare reform repeals the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program. The JOBS program helped welfare recipients to get education and training so they could qualify for a better job. The federal law does not provide for a replacement program. In addition, Federal law provides no exception to the 30-hour work rules for people who are trying to get an education. This means that in addition to classes, studying, and raising their kids, parents will have to work at least 30 hours every week.
Welfare reform largely ignores any federal responsibility to educate the welfare recipients who are being sent into the workforce. The federal government may also be ignoring the future of its workforce.
Workforce 2000, a landmark employment study commissioned by the Department of Labor, received a lot of attention after it was released in 1987. The study uncovered demographic shifts in the population of workers: women and minorities are entering the workforce at higher rates, the average age of workers is getting older. The study also recognized that jobs requiring higher skills are growing faster than unskilled jobs.
Shortly after the study was released, William E. Brock, the Secretary of Labor 1985-87, expressed his concern for the future. “The workers of the future will have to be better educated and better trained than our current labor force, or we will be unable to maintain a leadership position in the high technology industries and services that offer the greatest promise for America’s continued prosperity.”
There was much discussion and debate in the years after Workforce 2000 was published. But ten years later, as we stand on the brink of the 21st century, little has been done to ensure that the poorest of our nation’s workers will receive the education they need. Federal welfare reform penalizes people who are trying to get an education for a better life by imposing rigid work requirements and by eliminating the federal program that provided job training and education.
As we approach the new millennium, it is more important than ever to have a trained and educated workforce. Federal welfare reform should give more emphasis to the needs of the poorest for education and meaningful job training. Welfare reform should work with existing high school, college, and vocational education programs. Instead, these programs are threatened.
According to Brock, “Society must concentrate more employment and training resources, private as well as public, on young...welfare families because they can benefit most from such help.” In the end, the greatest promise for America’s continued prosperity is a workforce that is well trained, students who are well educated, and children who are well cared for.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March 1997-April 1997 Issue 20