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Leading the Nation: PCC is Moving People from Welfare to Work

Photos and Story by

by Susan Hereford

Since 1990, the Steps to Success program has moved more than 12,600 people off welfare and into jobs.

Photo: From Left, Elizabeth Stewart, 31-year-old Steps to Success student, and Mara Bailey, 22-year-old PSU senior, collaborate on a service learning project that pairs university students with welfare recipients. Stewart, on assistance for 12 years is a single mother with children ranging from 5 to 13. She hopes to become a certified nursing assistant. In background, Steps to Success Assistant Director Mardica Hicks.

"Tomorrow’s success begins today." The slogan is displayed prominently in one of the GED classrooms at Portland Community College’s Steps to Success. The philosophy seems to be working. The welfare reform program, a partnership among Portland Community College, Mt. Hood Community College, the Oregon Employment Department, and Adult and Family Services, was developed to give participants — mostly women with young children — the life skills they need to move from public assistance to independence.

Since 1990, the Steps to Success program has moved more than 12,600 people off welfare and into jobs, representing a significant percentage in the success Oregon has had in reducing welfare caseloads and putting people to work in family-wage jobs. This past year, Oregon ranked third in the nation — behind Wyoming and Wisconsin — in caseload reduction, down 28.5 percent. Since 1994, Oregon’s welfare cases have dropped 46 percent.

"We try to create a sense of community," said GED instructor Kathy Somer, "almost a family situation, and this seems to make all the difference. For many of our students, Steps to Success represents their first positive experience with education. Every day I witness success stories, and even miracles."

Several innovative approaches have defined the Steps to Success program, including intense collaboration with employers in a work experience program and a partnership with Portland State University that involves research and community service.

Approximately 3,500 individuals are served each year at two PCC sites, which also enroll teen parents and non-native English speakers. One is located in the heart of urban North Portland, a densely populated and high unemployment pocket of the city. The other location is situated in Washington County, where Oregon’s silicon forest intersects rural farms worked by migrants.

Nationally, Oregon has led the way in welfare reform. Pilot projects were established around the state in 1988 following passage of the Family Support Act which gave resources to states to provide education and training services to welfare recipients. PCC became involved in 1990 when a statewide program was put in place, called Job Opportunity and Basic Skills (JOBS).

But statistics do not tell the whole story. Deanna Sears, on welfare for 10 years, knew she needed to change her environment for her children when her oldest daughter became a mother herself at age 16. Sears entered the Steps program, having been out of school for 10 years. With financial aid, child care support from the state, and her cash grants, she completed a two-year degree in computer information systems. She went to work for a small business as a receptionist and computer expert in a work experience set up by the college. Soon she will be hired full time and put in charge of information systems and communications.

"My children now see me differently," says Sears. "They are proud of my job and my salary. They can have what they want, look like their schoolmates, and they are proud of their mother and her accomplishments."

And Sears’ teen daughter is now enrolled in Steps to Success, working toward her educational goals. Part of Sears’ success comes from the Jobs Plus program put in place one year ago by employers and PCC.

"This program represents a very successful partnership between business and the college," said Terri Greenfield, director of the Steps to Success North Portland location. "It’s been marketed to the employer community as an ‘opportunity to be part of the solution’ to welfare reform." It’s working. At Greenfield’s North Portland shop, they reached the 5,000 mark in the summer of 1996 of people moved from welfare to work.

Jobs Plus is set up like this: Food stamps and welfare benefits are cashed out to pay for the work experience and students are paid the market wage for the job. In addition, participating employers put $1 per hour in an education scholarship fund to be used by the student or the student’s children. A mentor, another employee, is designated to help the student transition to the work place. The college currently works with about 500 metro-area employers. To date, more than 85 percent of those who have completed the work experience are hired permanently.

"What is exciting is that employers have welcomed the opportunity to be involved," said Greenfield. "Employers also welcome the worksite coordinators, who are college employees, and the advice they give on dealing with some of the difficult issues welfare recipients face as they move into the world of work."

Another unique project involves a service learning partnership between PSU seniors and PCC Steps students in a collaborative research project. PSU students were enrolled in a six-credit course, "Women and Welfare Reform," which paired 17 sets of welfare recipients and university students to explore the barriers and supports to success in the welfare system.

PSU students were careful to stress the partnership aspect. Said 22-year-old PSU senior Mara Baily of her teammate, "I’m not a mentor. She is my partner. We are learning from each other."

The pairs met four hours each week in the spring. At the end of the term, the PSU team prepared a research report, along with recommendations, that was presented by both Steps and PSU students to the Oregon Legislature’s Ways and Means committee.

In follow-up surveys, university students expressed their surprise at the complexity of issues facing poor women in the welfare system. And Steps students said the project gave them a voice, an opportunity to be heard by legislative and policy leaders. Friendships formed. Students on welfare began to realize that higher education could be a possibility for them.

"A large part of the success the program has achieved comes from dedicated staff and good working relationships with our partners," said Dan Moriarty, Portland Community College president. "The staff and students motivate one another. Many employers have come back again and again," he added, "because they have learned they can bank on the Steps to Success staff to produce."

"Support and encouragement are as important as the training," notes Greenfield.

"We are helping families change their lives for the better and it is tremendously satisfying."

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