March 14, 2003

Amid growing evidence that welfare-to-work is working better for White recipients than for other racial and cultural groups both in Minnesota and nationwide, a new study by Wilder Research Center investigates some of the key issues behind those statistics.

The study finds that language barriers, lower levels of education, difficulty with basic reading and writing, discrimination in hiring, and a higher prevalence of health problems and disabilities are among the extra hurdles facing many minority and immigrant welfare recipients as they try to succeed in the workforce and become self-supporting.

Researchers also found that despite many discouraging experiences, welfare recipients in these groups voiced strong and consistent support for the importance of working and the basic idea of welfare reform.

The Wilder report, called "The Issues behind the Outcomes," investigates how Minnesota's welfare program could improve welfare-to-work success for the four cultural groups with the lowest success rates in Minnesota: Somali, Hmong, American Indian, and African American. The report is based on extensive discussions with nearly 200 current and former welfare recipients in those four populations.

Statistics from the Minnesota Department of Human Services show that about 35 percent of White participants remained on welfare from January 1998 to May 2000, compared to 61 percent of Asians, 55 percent of American Indians, and 53 percent of Blacks, including African Americans and African immigrants. (Hispanic participants had welfare exit rates more similar to Whites, with about 40 percent remaining on assistance during the same period.)

"This study allowed us to hear directly from recipients about their experiences with the welfare system and the job market," said researcher Ellen Shelton. "We focused on ways that welfare reform could better meet its goal of providing a path out of poverty and into self-sufficiency for all participants within the five-year limit."

While many of the difficulties described by the study participants could easily have happened to any welfare recipient, Shelton said, the study provides many examples of ways in which Somalis, Hmong, American Indians, and African Americans face different obstacles that affect their ability to get and keep jobs and exit welfare.

The Wilder study found evidence that some of the most difficult-to-overcome barriers to stable employment are more widespread and more complicated among immigrants and members of racial minorities. Those barriers include limited English skills, lack of work experience, low education levels, limited basic skills such as reading and writing, and the responsibilities of caring for larger families and children with special needs. Study participants also gave numerous examples of ways that discrimination based on race, language, and religion had compounded the difficulty of getting a job and succeeding in the workplace.

"It's important to remember that many former welfare recipients in these cultural communities are successfully launched on the path to self-sufficiency," Shelton said.

"However, it is clear from this research that many within these cultural groups, rather than needing welfare to help them through a temporary crisis or setback, are coming from a lifetime of instability or inadequate preparation for paid employment," she said. "Among people who had not yet left welfare, a large proportion reported that they lack one or more of the skills needed for even entry level work, including basic reading and math skills, familiarity with the expectations and norms of the workplace, and (for the immigrant groups) the ability to speak and understand English."

Along with issues unique to each cultural population, the report lists several themes heard consistently from all four cultural groups in locations throughout the state:

* Support for the basic idea of welfare reform, in which recipients work hard to become self-supporting, while the welfare system provides the help that makes it possible for them to do that.
* A common perception that the welfare system emphasizes enforcing the rules more than providing the encouragement and assistance to succeed.
* Widespread discouragement and frustration from trying to enter the job market with too many barriers and too little preparation.
* Difficulty understanding complicated rules, benefit formulas, and paperwork (among both American-born and immigrant groups), contributing to mistrust and suspicion.

One of the most important ways to improve success rates for these four cultural groups, the report suggests, is to allow welfare job counselors more time and resources for the individualized assistance that they are expected to provide. The role of the job counselor is to understand each client's circumstances, identify what kinds of help they need to become work-ready, and locate resources to help them.

"We heard many stories that underlined the powerful role of the job counselor. When that relationship works, it can make all the difference," Shelton said.

However, current caseloads of 80 to 100 clients, plus paperwork that typically takes up well over half of the work week, make it unrealistic for job counselors to effectively support those with the greatest work barriers, according to the Wilder report.

"An hour or so per month may be enough time to help those who are basically work-ready and need just a boost to get on track," Shelton said. "But it takes more than that for people who have the kinds of work barriers that we heard about in the course of this research. Especially when working across cultures, it takes time to establish communication and trust, understand the person's situation, explain all the rules and benefits, and line up the help that will prepare them for work."

A similar suggestion comes from welfare staff workers themselves in a parallel research project conducted by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. In that study, to be released soon, welfare workers serving these four cultural populations said that smaller caseloads, earlier identification of serious work barriers, and increased resources to address the barriers would improve results.

Both studies also recommend changing the way the welfare system tracks its own accountability. In addition to the current quotas for how many welfare recipients get a job, the welfare system would also report on how many have been thoroughly assessed to identify their greatest work barriers, and what progress is being made to overcome those barriers.

To view the Wilder report, "The Issues behind the Outcomes," CLICK below:

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