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Welfare to Work Pushes Technology

In the rush to reform welfare, many agencies are using innovative technologies to train and inspire welfare recipients for jobs.

In a perfect world, welfare recipients would be able to apply for and access services using a kiosk or personal computer in a public library, welfare office or at home. In the 18 months since the welfare reform mandate, state and county social service agencies have grappled with changing their focus from providing benefits to helping clients search and interview for jobs, providing job training and arranging childcare and transportation. Some jurisdictions have made great strides in the transition from maintaining stovepipe programs and applications -- Medicaid, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other stand-alone programs -- to becoming seamless social service organizations.

Historically, state departments of labor and social services have been separate agencies. This organizational separation, magnified by different funding sources, maintained the different objectives of the two agencies: one as a job center and another as a benefits provider.

At the same time, job training agencies began to realize that the myriad job training programs created because of different federal programs were expensive and ineffective. This led to a movement to consolidate job training programs with more flexibility for the states and automate many of the manual processes and programs under the jurisdiction of the state departments of labor. This movement spawned federally-funded public kiosks that coordinate federal, state and local government resources. The most successful Welfare to Work programs in the United States coordinate job training, job search and social service programs with this technology.


Wisconsin's progress serves as a national model for welfare reform. In its movement from a benefits-oriented organization to one that moves people into the work force, the state reconstituted its public assistance agency, which is now the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). "Most of our efforts focus on automation and local partnerships based on job centers," said Nancy Buckwalter, director of the Office of Information Technology Coordination for DWD.

The state's program -- Wisconsin Works or W-2 -- links TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) with job centers around the state. Local jurisdictions and job centers can customize W-2 to provide information about their own services in addition to the state's JobNet listings. According to Buckwalter, "Anyone can come in and find out what other services are available" at their local job center by using kiosks provided by DWD. JobNet is also available on the Web at .

The approach taken by Wisconsin to combine agencies into a new agency may not be appropriate or necessary for other states. Agency reorganizations are expensive and time-consuming. In a smaller state, like Montana, IT allows the state to create a virtual agency that appears as one to the user of the pavilion.


Montana is taking a similar approach as it rolls out its new Virtual Human Services Pavilions, which will allow access to existing human services systems via the Internet. Developed under contract by BDM Technologies, the pavilions will use automation to seamlessly provide services from different agencies and different levels of government.

Montana's goal is to provide a single entry point for recipients and service providers that is easy to access and use and increases client self-sufficiency while improving agency productivity. The virtual pavilions allow for that and more.

When asked whether all clients would find the pavilions easy to use, Mike Billings, director of the Operations and Technology Division for the Department of Public Health and Human Services, noted that, "Welfare participants who are required to work provide assistance to other recipients with the pavilions. They will be trained and working in the welfare offices, helping in the use of the pavilions." Billings added that, the system, which is currently in a pilot program, "eventually will have access stations in 75 welfare offices -- two in each job services office as well as public libraries, community colleges and on Indian reservations." Future functions will include online employment applications (due this month) and information for Medicaid providers, including recipient pictures and medical history.


In Dallas County, Texas, the Private Industry Council of Dallas was recreated as the Dallas County Local Workforce Development Board in April 1997. The Dallas County Workforce System combines privatization, public/private partnerships, one-stop career centers and other federal, state and local government resources.

The program, funded by the Job Training Partnership Act, provides education and training scholarships, adult education, work-readiness classes, testing and assessment and other necessary services. Lockheed Martin IMS operates four One-Stop Career Centers in Dallas County by providing job-readiness services and job search assistance. The Texas Workforce Commission provides unemployment and employment services at the centers. Other programs are provided through the American Association of Retired Persons and coordination with charitable organizations for services not provided at the One-Stop Career Centers.

The county's workforce system uses automation to identify clients that are at least 20 years of age and have completed the eighth-grade. These clients are sent a letter inviting them to a program orientation session where they are assessed and counseled on career choices. The centers also identify the client's childcare and transportation needs and help meet those needs with assistance. Lockheed Martin also solicits job openings from private employers and federal agencies and sponsors periodic Dallas Workforce Expositions that allow potential employers and training providers to meet with clients.


The Computer Technology for Independence (CTI) program in Newport, R.I., is an example of a public/private partnership that provides computer skills to welfare recipients and others as they look for employment.

Dating back to October 1996, CTI was established by a local organization, New Visions, in response to the impact welfare reform parents were having on children participating in local Head Start programs. New Visions partnered with the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (RIDLT) and the Newport Chamber of Commerce to develop a training curriculum, internships and workshops. RIDLT provides job-readiness training, while classroom training is provided by the Community College of Rhode Island and CCR Computer Labs. New Visions, the state's Department of Human Services and the Newport Chamber of Commerce provide additional workshops, training and counseling.

One of the unique aspects of this program is that students assemble their own computer as they begin the training session. The program also provides additional job, employment and financial counseling, internships, childcare and transportation assistance. CTI is a yearly program and is incorporating minor changes and lessons learned in its second year.

As demonstrated by these varied programs, technology can be used in a variety of ways to help welfare recipients find work. These programs make it easier for participants to access information on jobs and benefits, provide training to job seekers and identify the most appropriate clientele for the training and job readiness programs offered by state and local government agencies. The common element between all of these programs is in how they recognized the need for new approaches and developed programs that fit each jurisdiction's specific environment and needs. These approaches hope to create opportunities that will make Welfare to Work a success for both the states and the program participants.

Milford Sprecher is a program director for IDC Government of Falls Church, Va., where he tracks technology use in the public sector. *

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