In S.C., more move from welfare to work

The State (Columbia, S.C.)August 9, 2012 

An increasing number of South Carolinians are getting off welfare and into jobs, according to the S.C. Department of Social Services, which oversees the state’s welfare-to-work program.

More than 10,600 South Carolinians got off welfare and got jobs in the 10-month period that ended June 30, according to the agency. That is more than double the 5,060 individuals who transitioned from assistance to work in 2010.

Doubling the number was a top goal of new Social Services director Lillian Koller, who told the agency’s staff to change the way it was serving welfare clients.

Previously, the agency had focused on meeting a federal requirement that welfare recipients must take part in some type of work activity for 30 hours a week. Often, that meant volunteering in the community.

Koller instructed the agency’s staff to change its focus to identifying able-bodied recipients, thought capable of getting a job, and getting them to apply for five jobs every week.

“It was really a sea change to (staff),” Koller said. “To hear, ‘The thing we’ve been doing for the past 15 years just isn’t working as we think it should and so we’re going to put that to the side and focus instead on getting people employed.’”

The state agency’s 32 job developers also picked up their pace on scouting out prospective employers statewide and convincing them to hire welfare recipients. Some loaded up vans with clients and took them to meet prospective employers face-to-face.

“That turned out to be extremely effective in getting our recipients hired,” said Linda Martin, Social Services’ deputy director for economic services. “We think it’s because the stereotype of what a welfare recipient might be did not match the person (prospective employers) saw sitting in front of them. They saw someone wanting to work and ready to work.”

The agency also gave prospective employers good reason to hire welfare recipients.

A Social Services program pays half of an employee’s pay for a limited period of time, depending on the employee’s situation. Federal dollars also are available for tools, uniforms and other items an employee may need. And the agency provides child care and transportation for some welfare recipients for a limited period of time.

“It’s worked out well for us,” said Allendale County Magistrate Judge Willard Branch, who recently found a court aide through Social Services. Branch said of his new assistant is learning the court’s computer system, typing correspondence and filing documents. “I’ve been very pleased. (She) is on time. She’s eager to learn, and I plan to have her here for a long time.”

Once they find work, 96 percent of the former welfare recipients are keeping those jobs, Koller said. On average, they are paid about $9.50 an hour, $2.25 above the minimum wage. Employers range from the Lowes home-improvement chain to child-care centers to assisted-living facilities to mechanic shops, she added.

Still, Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, an advocacy group for the low income, worries that many of the jobs that welfare recipients are finding do not pay well, and the state lacks support services for the poor.

She points to state law that provides assistance in paying for child care for one year. In the second year, the assistance is cut in half.

“After two years, they fall off the cliff,” Berkowitz. “What we’re not doing is looking for ways to support people so that, when they’re going into low-wage jobs, they have additional support to stay in those jobs and be successful with their families.”

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