Traditionally, welfare-to-work programs consist of a two-step process: education or training followed by job placement. The lack of education or training was seen as the cause of unemployment, so programs emphasized skill remediation before assisting in job placement. Historically, this approach provided mixed results.
In Riverside, California, welfare reform is taking a different approach. Seeing that a training program can often begin by neglecting the skills and current employment potential of the client, the Riverside Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) program focuses primarily on job placement. While skill remediation is still recognized as necessary for some participants, the Riverside strategy is to reserve remediation for those who were unsuccessful in their job seeking efforts. The philosophy of the program is that getting a job is the all-important ingredient to gaining self-respect and getting on the road to self-reliance.
Another important aspect of the program is the consistent, long-term relationship that the GAIN staff maintains with the private-sector employers in the region. The "job-first" philosophy changes the welfare service into a staffing agency. In this way, the GAIN staff is encouraged to participate in their local chambers of commerce, and to coordinate "job fairs" between their job-seeking clients and the local employers. In effect, the stigma and perception of a "welfare bureaucracy" is replaced by confidence and a resource for local businesses. In the words of one GAIN staffer, the program is a "full service employment agency, with a large pool of workers and no fees to employers."
The program has achieved remarkable results. In the fiscal year 1993-1994, job placements by GAIN in Riverside represented about 75 percent of the caseload as opposed to 50 percent in the other programs in California. The program estimates that about 15 percent of the participants will earn enough to leave welfare permanently and another 42 percent will earn enough to reduce their state benefits, saving tax payers $15 million overall. The emphasis on placement first has reduced the cost of each participant as well. If measured by participant, the program's cost is under $1000 while if measured by placement the program's cost is $1400 for each job. Under either measurement, these averages represent a savings of 65 percent over the average cost of California's other welfare-to-work programs.
The program has been running successfully since 1987 and as the news of its success has spread, other reform programs in California are adopting similar models and finding similar success. Los Angeles, for example, began to revise its program in 1993 and reports a 400 percent increase in job placement for a program five times the size of Riverside's. Other adopting jurisdictions include San Bernardino and San Diego. The program is also spreading to other states, notably Wisconsin and Michigan.
Still, as other jurisdictions begin to adopt the "job-first" mentality, many note that is only a step in the right direction. It is the public-private relationship between the program and the region's employers that is creating the favorable changes. By removing the stigma and attracting employers to this free "staffing agency" Riverside's GAIN program is leading towards a new hope for the welfare recipient to gain self reliance.