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August 22, 2014, 5:46 am

Pa. cuts impeding ‘welfare-to-work’

Fewer training programs for people ‘on assistance’ frustrating, delay employment


As if things weren’t already hard enough for out-of-work Philadelphians, recipients of public assistance in Pennsylvania are likely have an even tougher time finding employment under a series of program cuts implemented in the state’s new budget, according to advocates for low-income families.

As of July 1, New Directions welfare-to-work programs — which include nine Employment, Advancement, and Retention (EARN) centers in Philadelphia — saw their annual funding drop nearly 50 percent statewide, from $33 million to just over $17 million.

The cuts have had an immediate impact on the number of people entering much-needed education services like GED preparation classes and English as a Second Language training, which according to Michael Froehlich — an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia — were hit especially hard by the cuts.

Froehlich says the administration itself has projected that the cuts will eliminate 40 percent of cash assistance recipients from employment and training programs. That’s bad news for the thousands of Philadelphians who receive cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Under current regulations, anyone receiving cash assistance in the state is required to participate in some form of work activity, unless they receive an exemption. For most recipients this means daily attendance at one of the city’s EARN centers where they receive job counseling, work on their résumés and, until recently, had the opportunity to attend on-site training programs and adult education classes such as GED preparation and ESL.

These last two are especially important in Philadelphia; at some of the city’s centers, social workers say, well over half the clients lack a high school diploma, while many speak something other than English as their primary language. With programs disappearing, options are increasingly scarce for the most needy welfare recipients.

“The EARN centers are kind of stuck because they are providing people with job search opportunities and résumé updating classes but there’s no training to refer them to,” said Froehlich. “Since the new budget went into effect there are no more referrals from the EARN centers out to outside education and training classes, and there are no more referrals to adult basic education. So what are these people doing? For the most part they are spending 20 or 30 hours a week in these EARN centers running around in circles.”

Mark Edwards, president and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corporation — which oversees the city’s EARN centers — says that’s not quite the case, but the truth isn’t much more encouraging.

According to Edwards, the Pennsylvania Department of Education decreased the number of approved service providers under its Division of Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) from 22 to just six and cut funding for the program from $7 million to just over $4 million. In the past, the state mandated that ABLE provide services on site at the EARN centers; under the new budget that is no longer required.

As a result of this and some changes related to how ABLE measures the performance of their contractors, only one out of the city’s nine EARN centers still provides literacy services, Edwards said.

“The bottom line is that the funding changes have made provision of literacy services to EARN customers more challenging, but not impossible,” he said.

Froehlich says that while that may technically be the case, “because of these significant cuts and the fact that these services are no longer provided on site plus the [financial] disincentive for EARN centers to refer people offsite, the reality is that people are not getting the benefit of these services anymore.”

One of the programs that has been especially affected is PathWays PA, which services roughly 700 TANF clients at its EARN center in North Philadelphia, many of whom are non-native English speakers. Wilma Rivera is a case worker at the center handling monolingual or bilingual clients; together with three other counselors she shares a caseload of more than 400 clients, most of them women, and many in need of extra support in the form of ESL instruction, GED classes, child care or all three. Rivera says that at any given time she could have upwards of 130 clients enrolled in some form of education program.

But that was before the budget cuts. PathWays PA is one of the on-site education providers that lost its ABLE funding this year. And according to Rivera, coupled with the DPW cuts, the fallout was immediate.

“We had one client, Rosa, a bilingual woman, who was very sharp,” she explained. “She was taking GED classes and would not miss even a day, she was one of those clients that motivates other clients. When the time came when there were no more classes, unfortunately she stopped going to the EARN center because she was not feeling she was getting the help she needed and she ended up being terminated [for noncompliance].”

Rosa’s story has played itself out again and again at PathWays PA; In July, the month the budget went into effect, Rivera says she lost 14 clients who were otherwise in compliance thanks to the disappearance of GED/ESL. She says that for the people she works with, traveling off site to class is often a burden, requiring transportation, child care and in some cases language services. For these people, she says, the EARN centers often serve as their only link to a better future.

“When they come in they have two choices to get a job or go to training — the training was GED or ESL ... now the choice is simply to find a job,” said Rivera. “It’s like we’re back at zero.”

The Department of Welfare has defended the cuts, saying the choice was between cutting programs or bringing more flexibility and efficiency to the services already offered. 

“Pennsylvania needs a strong safety net for those who need help due to health issues, income loss, or other unfortunate circumstances, and this budget makes sure that safety net remains for our most vulnerable citizens,” Public Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander said in March as the budget was being finalized. He went on to suggest that some programs do more to keep people on welfare than get them off. “[F]or some Pennsylvanians, the safety net has instead become a restraint, holding them back from achieving a life of independence and self-sufficiency...”

Rivera finds that statement disingenuous. “The whole purpose of the EARN center and these programs is to take people out of unemployment and place them into jobs and take them out of the system,” she said.

The PWDC, which provides services to some 24,000 Philadelphians, watched its overall budget go from $40 million to $25 million on July 1. Despite the cuts, Edwards says that so far the agency has managed to keep its programs running through the turmoil. Edwards says he has reached out to the service agencies now in charge of providing adult basic education to ensure as little disruption as possible. But he is worried about another set of reforms the state is readying that will institute a “work first” model, mandating that welfare recipients get jobs before they can qualify for education services.

“With this policy change it will mean that the bar is risen for us and we are going to have to work harder to make sure people get the services they need,” said Edwards.

According to Froehlich, all these changes are playing out against a backdrop of a public welfare system that is being forced to do more with less. He says welfare workers’ caseloads have gone up 89 percent thanks to economy and staff losses as more people have joined the ranks of the unemployed.

“These cuts are pennywise and pound foolish,” he said. “I’m not sure policymakers are understanding this, but if you cut $15–20 million from welfare-to-work programs, you may see an identical increase in the welfare grant budget line item because that means that programs are going to have a more difficult time getting people off welfare and back to work and more people will remain on cash assistance for longer.”