e-mail us


Welfare-to-work policy needs work


Welfare-to-work is not working. The poor seem to be caught in a never-ending cycle of poverty and dependency. There are three problem areas: job training, disruptive family situations and poor schools.

Welfare-to-work has concentrated on putting people into jobs first. Due to low skill levels, the job is usually low paid. Without additional training and education, opportunities for moving up the economic ladder are limited. Although many companies have on-the-job training, they are not equipped or willing to teach literacy and numerical skills or to assume the cost of remedial education.

A pilot “job ladder” program has been funded by Congress to provide ongoing skills training and counseling. This sort of program should be supported and expanded to ensure that every American who seeks it can receive the training necessary to get a job with a future.

Of course, access to a decent job is only part of the solution. Many families struggling with poverty also face domestic challenges such as drug or alcohol addiction, abusive spouses, boy friends or relatives and squalid living conditions.

A partial solution is extended child care, including after-school and summer activities such as tutoring, athletics and youth clubs. A few years ago a congressional recommendation of funding midnight basketball was ridiculed, but this type of activity is just what is needed.

Probably the biggest single factor in perpetuating the cycle of poverty and dependency is poor schools. Poor children start with two strikes against them because the schools they attend do not give them the skills needed to rise about low wage jobs.

Why are achievement levels in some schools so low? A recent study by the University of Tennessee, reported in Education Life, investigated the factors. The study examined class size, the location of the school (urban, suburban, rural), per-pupil expenditure, ethnic makeup, percentage of children eligible for free and reduced costs for lunch, the heterogeneous or homogeneous makeup of the school and the quality of the teacher. The study found that the quality of the teachers was the most significant factor. Teacher effectiveness was 10 to 20 times as significant as other factors.

The study traced individual children through sequences of teachers. For example, the study compared the progress of two children who left the second grade with the same achievement level. One child was taught for the next three years by a teacher in the top 20th percentile and the other by a teacher in the bottom percentile. The first child scored in the 96th percentile in the fifth grade math test, while the other scored in the 44th percentile.

Salaries for teachers are decisively lower than for other professional positions. The Education Week annual survey showed the average starting pay of a U.S. teacher was $8,000 less than other professionals, and at age 50, $24,000 less. The average salary of all teachers is $30,074 compared to the average salary of all professionals of $43,075. Inner city teachers receive substantially less than suburban teachers. Often idealistic young teachers leave inner city teaching because they become discouraged by the discipline problems, the bureaucracy and low salaries.

Teacher effectiveness can be improved. Salaries should be increased to attract and retain better teachers. An offer to forgive tuition loans after five years of teaching should be used to attract young people to the profession. Performance standards to identify and reward effective teachers should be used as incentives. Ongoing teacher training should be offered throughout the systems. Higher pay should be offered to teachers who work with poorly prepared students, learning disabled students or students with problem behaviors.

The adverse consequences of poor education in this country are a national issue, not just a local issue. Remedies should be federally funded. Although the costs are high, this is an investment in the future of our country. The GI Bill, which offered tuition and living stipends for a four-year college education to every World War II veteran, was the best investment this country ever made.

Poorly educated and poorly trained people are a financial drain on the country. The costs of welfare, health care, extra police protection and prisons increase; the country bears the higher costs of a less productive work force; the country realizes lower tax revenues from those who earn low incomes.

Welfare-to-work might not be working, but the causes can be identified and solutions developed. Going back to the old welfare system is not acceptable politically, is not good economics and it is not sound morally to have a permanent underclass of poverty, dependence and low self-esteem.

John Caron, a Connecticut businessman and member of the NCR board of directors, is engaged in promoting progress in Third World countries.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000