Back to work; Making it work for those who want to |

Back to work; Making it work for those who want to

Rick Chandler

JoAnne is a young mom with three children under the age of 5. When she enrolled in the Welfare to Work program’s Employment Success Class, she had no job, no prospects and precious little hope.

“That’s what people don’t realize about people on welfare,” said the South Lake Tahoe resident. “People think that we single moms are just sitting around, collecting benefits. But the welfare lifestyle breaks you down in so many ways. It tears at your self-esteem.

“The world spins around so fast when you’re not in it.”

Welfare to Work is one result of California’s relatively new emphasis on welfare reform. Rather than spending substantial time and money training people for jobs, as was the old strategy, the new aim involves putting people into the work force right away. That may come in the form of a service job or some other form of lower-pay employment, but that could lead to bigger things, and often does.

In the Employment Success Program, co-sponsored by the Department of Social Services and the Employment Development Department, students are put through a comprehensive program in which they learn practical skills for obtaining a job. The instruction runs from assembling a resume to choosing a wardrobe for a job interview. But the program’s largest benefit, according to students like JoAnne, is purely psychological.

“They really work on building your strengths, and a lot of that has to do with self-esteem,” she said. “Having confidence in yourself has so much to do with it. It’s tough raising three small kids without a husband. Having a support network is very important.”

JoAnne has worked at a variety of service jobs over the past few years. In Utah she was a cashier. In Stockton she was a waitress. For the past two years, she has been moving from motel to motel with her three children, ages 4, 2 and 8 months.

“It’s hard to hold a job when you have little ones to care for,” she said. “Finding child care, transportation, these are all big issues.”

The family received a big blow recently when they were evicted from an apartment in which they had been living for almost two years.

“New landlords took over, and they had a problem with the kids,” she said. “They told me they were acting in an unsafe manner in the parking lot. So we had to leave.”

Like many people in her situation, JoAnne felt that she was the only one in the world with her problems.

“But the first thing I learned here (at Employment Success Class) is that many people have the same difficulties,” she said. “You get to know people, and make friends. You gain a support network. That’s very important.”

The four-week course covers applications, resumes and job-hunt strategies, and emphasizes that students concentrate on long-term goals. People receiving welfare benefits are required to attend, but that is not a requisite. Anyone who wants to polish their job-hunting skills may sign up.

In addition to the local Department of Social Services staff, instructors are provided with Lake Tahoe Community College and Harrah’s Hotel and Casino.

“The program has been really helpful to me,” said JoAnne, who has lived in South Lake Tahoe for two years. “They provide child care and transportation when you need it. They support you.”

It’s that support that is crucial in getting people back to self sufficiency, according to Department of Social Services counselor Margaret Wattle.

“People on welfare often find themselves to be isolated. There is a lot of potential frustration,” Wattle said. “When they are at home with the kids and not working, they tend to lose touch with their social network. They find themselves just sitting around. And that routine can become as toxic as the stuff they’re watching on TV.”

All is not perfect with welfare reform; some people still fall through the cracks. One criticism of the Employment Success Class is that it leans too heavily toward the needs of women – specifically single mothers. Another common complaint is that there are so many different federal, state and county welfare agencies, people are unsure where to turn when they need help.

But in South Lake Tahoe, they have a pretty good plan. All welfare agencies will soon be under one roof (the old TCI Cable building on Takela Drive, just off of U.S. Highway 50). Dubbed “One Stop,” the center will house offices of the Department of Social Services (a county agency); the Employment Development Department (state agency); Golden Sierra Job Training (federally funded); and Choices for Children (local advocacy group). In addition, Lake Tahoe Community College and the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation will also be housed there.

“We expect to have most of these offices in the new location by Jan. 1,” said Department of Social Services Director Victor Uriz. “At that time we will also have computers available for job searches on the Internet.”

And that’s another skill which JoAnne may look into.

“I feel that I have possibilities now,” she said. “I have a future here.”

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