Playing the Numbers

It had nothing to do with presidential sex and it wasn't a military strike, but a report last week about Los Angeles County's welfare-to-work program collected front-page headlines from here to Washington, D.C. - and left Los Angeles welfare-rights advocates wondering if they had wandered into the Twilight Zone.

The news turned on a study by the nonprofit Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), which produced statistics that were embraced as evidence of the success of welfare reform in L.A. and across the country, since there are more welfare recipients here - 725,000 - than in any other county in the nation. The upbeat message was lofted by NPR; "L.A.'s Great Stride Forward on Welfare" glowed a Los Angeles Times editorial headline. "L.A. Workfare Program a Model for Cities," concurred the Associated Press; smaller papers chimed in with headlines like the one in the Austin American-Statesman: "Los Angeles Offers Hope in Cutting Welfare."

Two particular study findings uncorked the torrent of praise. One was the claim that 43 percent of the welfare recipients enrolled in the county's welfare-to-work program, called GAIN (Greater Avenues of Independence), found jobs, compared with the 32 percent of non-GAIN welfare recipients. And when the GAIN participants found jobs, they were paid at a higher rate than those not enrolled in the GAIN program - $1,286 total over a six-month stretch, as opposed to $879 for non-GAIN clients. The study also linked the GAIN program to savings on welfare costs of between 8 percent and 10 percent.

Of course, it's hard to boast about jobs paying an average income of just $214 a month, and while none of the news coverage questioned the findings, welfare-rights advocates in Los Angeles were stunned by the triumphant tone sounding from officials and the media.

"It's all spin," fumes Sam Mistrano, director of the Human Services Network. Advocates don't dispute the key statistics of the study, he says, but can't understand why the county considers them so encouraging.

The answer lies in how you define success. Measured against the dismal results of a 1992 MDRC study, the county had nowhere to go but up. That research showed that GAIN had had little impact on clients' ability to find work, and had yielded no cost savings for the county. Against that backdrop, the gains reported last week are a marked improvement - even when, as in the case of post-GAIN employment, the increase in amounts to less than $15 per week.

The county's definition of success is also shaped by the 1996 federal welfare-reform legislation, which pressures local agencies to move welfare recipients off the rolls as quickly as possible into a job, any job - an approach called "work-first." Theoretically, the low-wage job is the first rung toward self-sufficiency. Welfare-rights advocates, overwhelmed by the task of caring for the people they say are falling through the cracks, define success as moving individuals off welfare and out of poverty. So far, at least, that's not happening with GAIN in L.A.

Another area in dispute is not reflected in the MDRC findings at all, but is mentioned in a description of the report's methodology. Just about half the GAIN participants left the program to take jobs, but there is no accounting for the other half - why they left the program or what happened to them afterwards.

Some of those welfare recipients who left the GAIN program were terminated, or sanctioned, for lack of compliance with welfare-to-work contract requirements. Until now, such sanctioned clients simply returned to the welfare rolls. But under current regulations, termination from GAIN means loss of all benefits. Advocates contend that if GAIN continues to cut off clients at the current rate of about one-third, the county will face a new poverty crisis.

In addition, critics maintain that shoving this group out of the safety net becomes the primary source of the 8-to-10 percent savings in welfare costs trumpeted by the study as a sign of L.A. County's success. The report itself says that the savings reflect GAIN's strict participation requirements.

"Sanctions push people deeper into poverty," says Muneer Ahmad of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

L.A. County officials do not dispute the welfare advocates' critique of the MDRC study. Instead, administrators such as Department of Public Social Services Special Projects Chief Sandra Semtner try to focus on the positive. Semtner calls welfare reform "a grand experiment," a view that probably explains why she sees $6.53 an hour, the average wage that GAIN participants make when they do get a job, as a stride forward.

And the experiment is going to get grander still, with GAIN scheduled to spend close to a half billion dollars in this and the next fiscal year on training, post-employment support, drug rehabilitation and child-care services. The caseload will grow as well, as tens of thousands of General Relief recipients - the county's most destitute residents - are channeled into GAIN.

Largely based on her experience with GAIN clients, who "continue to surprise us with their strength," Semtner says the program will succeed. "This program has given people an opportunity to show that, given half a chance, this population is an amazing population with lots of positives."

A passel of grinning kids giggle as they hang over an apartment balcony to peer at the people gathering next door. The Welfare Reform Coalition has called a news conference in the back yard of a Boyle Heights homeless shelter to critique the MDRC study and the L.A. County GAIN program. They castigate the Department of Public Social Services, which administers GAIN, for touting inadequate performance. And they criticize the media for buying the hype with no hint of skepticism.

"Some sectors of the media," complains Welfare Reform Coalition Co-Chair Bill Gallegos "have acted like a PR machine for the county."

But it was not just the county pulling the strings. The study of L.A. County GAIN was orchestrated by a Clinton administration desperate for some good news, and was funded in part by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in Washington.

Clinton, after all, once vowed to "end welfare as we know it" and led the charge for vast changes in the way the country cares for its poorest citizens. The work-first model is intrinsic to those changes. The MDRC study was geared for release two years after Clinton's welfare bill was signed into law, press-friendly timing that the L.A. Times seized upon with the credulous comment "The timing of the study's release couldn't have been better."

DHHS Secretary Donna Shalala personally released the results of the L.A. study at a press conference in Washington, accompanied by officials from MDRC and Los Angeles County.

Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the department, said DHHS provided the report eight or nine days early to some members of the press and arranged a briefing with "select reporters." He scoffed at the idea that such a briefing might contribute to a particular spin: "In my experience, reporters ask some pretty hard questions."

None were evident in the coverage, however. No one challenged the notion of celebrating an income of $214 a month, and most went beyond that to echo the DHHS assertion that, as the Washington Post put it, the report represents "the first solid evidence that welfare reform is beginning to work in the nation's largest cities."

The L.A. Times parroted the DHHS press release almost verbatim, reporting "dramatic gains in moving welfare recipients into jobs."

National Public Radio apparently saw little irony in selecting, as the audio backdrop for its report celebrating GAIN, a participant fruitlessly calling numbers cold from the phone book in search of work.

But if the rest of the nation now believes that Los Angeles has proven the efficacy of get-tough welfare reform, welfare-rights advocates here say they will continue to challenge the comfortable assumptions.

"We want to say to the [county] Board of Supervisors, 'Take some responsibility here. Don't just let someone put a study on your desk that says everything is fine, the economy is fine,'" says the Welfare Reform Coalition's Gallegos. "Because $214 a month to support any kind of family is not fine. It's criminal."

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