Pennsylvania programs for welfare-to-work push job seekers, but offer less support
May 8, 2012By Emma Jacobs and Holly Otterbein
This is the second installment of an occasional series on the public system that's supposed to help the unemployed and Philadelphia's businesses find each other.
Alexis Bethel is 21. She's a single mom to a toddler with chronic asthma. She had been jobless for two years and receiving a monthly stipend from Pennsylvania to support herself and her daughter.
Last year the Philadelphia welfare office sent Bethel to a state-funded job center, also known as an EARN center, to find work. Bethel, who has a high-school diploma, also enrolled at Sanford-Brown Institute to become a medical assistant.
"I always grew up saying I was going to become a doctor," said Bethel, "just kind of something that I stayed with."
Later, Bethel says her EARN caseworker told her she could lose her benefits for trying to count her classes towards the hours she's required to be looking for work.
Sharon Rosenberg runs that EARN Center in Kensington. She says her nonprofit, JEVS Human Services has an increasingly specific mandate from the state.
"We are really focused on our primary goal which is getting somebody a job," said Rosenberg. "So our approved activities are rather narrow, really focusing on ... obtaining employment."
In certain cases, welfare recipients can be approved to attend classes. But Anne Bale, the Department of Public Welfare's spokeswoman, wrote in an email that the state will focus less on "long-term training or degree programs and non-career specific literacy activities."
Critics argue that Pennsylvania is increasingly discouraging welfare recipients from pursuing education and job training to get work that pays well, and that massive cuts to Philadelphia's jobs programs have made matters worse.
In Philadelphia, most EARN Center clients arrive without high-school diplomas or GEDs. Throughout the past year, as Gov. Corbett has faced vocal criticism for cutting education, the money for Philadelphia's jobs programs has quietly dried up as well. These programs have lost nearly 50 percent of their funds due to state cuts and the loss of federal stimulus dollars.
Job skills training and education programs have been among the first items on the chopping block. Some GED classes at Philadelphia's EARN centers were also eliminated. Pennsylvania's stated goal is "work first." That's a term from the welfare reform era of the mid-90s, since then-President Bill Clinton delivered his famous promise to "end welfare as we know it."
Today, with the national conversation increasingly focused on educational achievement, the workforce system gives people on public assistance a harder push to enter the job market right away.
Gery Hansberry stands in the middle of a sunny storefront in South Philadelphia, which gets deliveries of laundry by bicycle to run through its high-efficiency washers. Hansberry was at an EARN center when she was hired as Wash Cycle's first employee. Now she's a manager.
"I've never been a manager of anything before except my home," she said.
Her supervisor Gabriel Mandujano is a very unusual boss. He hires from Philadelphia's EARN centers, and invests in training them for higher-paying positions, using "executive coaching techniques to match people's personal and professional interests to goals of the company."
Mandujano is a favorite of the workforce system, but he's not the norm. With less money available for training and education, Community Legal Services attorney Michael Froehlich argues that more people will be forced into dead-end jobs — "even if that job just means that you're back on the welfare rolls within months."
"If more training were available," said Froehlich, "it would be better for taxpayers. It would be better for the economy."
Mark Edwards, president of Philadelphia's Workforce Development Corporation, responds that many people do get jobs that last, and that EARN Centers can refer some people to outside training programs. He also says that the workforce development system is undergoing a massive restructuring that will make it more efficient.
"We've prioritized a number of our training dollars," said Edwards, "to be reserved for employers to meet the needs that they have for jobs that they know they have."
Froehlich helped Alexis Bethel appeal to keep her benefits. The state is no longer threatening to take them away. Both he and Bethel think it should be easier to pursue a degree. And Bethel hopes she’ll be able to go back to school.