Honorable Alexis M. Herman
Remarks as Delivered
U.S. Secretary Alexis Herman
National Press Club
February 17, 1998
Its an honor to be here to talk about helping Americans make the noble passage from welfare to work--and to share some experiences from a national tour Ive just concluded on this issue.
Ive spent much of my life working on this challenge. My first full-time job was with Catholic Charities helping young men find work in the shipyards of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Since then, I have seen the ebb and flow of many waves of welfare reform.
But today we are in the midst of something entirely different and completely new. It isnt a wave- -its a sea of change. The welfare reform law is one of our nations biggest social policy changes in the last fifty years.
Its been one and a half years since President Clinton signed the law. Thats not long enough for final conclusions, but it is enough time to step back and see where we are.
So what do we know about the end of welfare as we know it?
First, we know that we may be in new territory, but we build on solid ground. The Presidents economic plan is working. More than 14 million new jobs in the last five years. The lowest unemployment rates in 25 years. Inflation is in check. A balanced federal budget. In short, the strongest economy in a generation. Now is the time for comprehensive welfare reform.
Second, we know that caseloads are dropping. Welfare rolls have had their sharpest decline in history. Since President Clinton took office, welfare caseloads have fallen by more than 30%. And in the first 13 months since the law took effect, 2.4 million left the rolls.
Third, we know the welfare reform law didnt just end the old system, it is ending the old debate. On one extreme, we had critics who simply declared people dont want to work. On the other, there were those who said any change to a 60-year-old policy would bring catastrophic results. One and a half years later, communities--and individuals themselves--are proving both assumptions wrong.
So welfare has been reformed, but how is it being replaced? What are some models to highlight? What are the challenges ahead? And what does it all mean to real people?
Last fall, the President asked me to travel the country to help answer those questions, report back to him, and share my findings with my Cabinet colleagues who are also working on these issues-- including Secretary Shalala, Secretary Cuomo, Secretary Slater, Secretary Glickman and SBA Administrator Alvarez.
All together, I visited ten cities to put a human face on welfare policy. I had straightforward conversations about the real world impact of welfare reform -- because this isnt about changing laws, its about changing lives.
I spoke with young mothers in Delaware and young fathers in Los Angeles. I met with Native Americans in Phoenix and rural Americans in Wichita. I reached out to the faith-based community in Milwaukee and the small business community in Cleveland.
I saw progress. I saw problems. But most of all, I saw hope.
I saw hope in the eyes of a woman in Tampa who had been on welfare for 25 years with seven children. She used to find it hard to get out of bed. Now shes living her dreams, starting a new job and a new life.
I felt hope from a woman in Cleveland who told me she gets up early every morning to practice job interviews in front of the mirror. Now when she looks in that mirror, she sees the future.
And I heard hope from a group of pre-schoolers at the West End Neighborhood House in Wilmington, Delaware who sang I Believe I Can Fly--as their mothers were upstairs doing just that, taking classes, climbing higher.
In the end, this isnt about my journey, its about theirs. Its about the obstacles that people face navigating from welfare to self-sufficiency. And its about the challenges we must confront as a society to see that every American who takes responsibility has real opportunity.
When I present my findings to the President, I will identify six core challenges that emerged throughout this mission--along with recommendations to meet them.
Today I want to talk in plain terms about those challenges. About what I heard, where Ive been and what I believe we need to do to make welfare-to-work a lasting success.
The first step--the first challenge--is to end the stigma of welfare.
People want to work. Their hearts and hands ache for the dignity and respect work brings. They want to show their children that they are achieving. And they want to be recognized for what they are--not old welfare recipients, but what I call new workers.
Time and again, in community after community, individuals told me about how the stigma of being on welfare didnt end even after they began a job. They were labeled. They were stereotyped. They were boxed in by prejudice. Can I really trust this person? Are they up to the job?
The fact is, people on welfare are just like you and me. They deserve the dignity, respect and title of workers. And we must demand that they receive the rights, benefits and protections of workers. That includes a fair wage, equals opportunity on the job, a safe and healthy workplace, and every other labor safeguard that is theirs by right and by law.
That is why the Presidents call to raise the minimum wage is so important because we must make work pay and improve the living standards of millions of working families.
The second challenge is understanding that success is not just about getting a job, but keeping a job.
We need to focus on the to in welfare-to-work. And that means taking a hard look at the barriers between a welfare recipient and a job. In order to get work, you need to get to work.
For many on welfare, that means getting up before the sun--waiting for the bus, getting on the train, praying that the car will start one more time. Sometimes it means a two-hour commute each way because thats where the jobs are.
It means finding quality child care for the kids. A place thats affordable and safe. And even if youre lucky enough to find and pay for it--the center may not be open when you leave for work or it may be closed long before you get back.
These challenges arent necessarily unique to new workers. The difference is in degree. For many of us, a dead car battery is a hassle. It may mean taking a cab to work. For those on welfare, it could mean losing a job because you dont have cab fare.
What can we do to help new workers manage the change and clear some of the hurdles on the path to success? One solution is after hours child care. A facility I heard about when I visited Delaware provides care day and night. There needs to be others like it around the country.
Child care is vital. And thats why the President has proposed the largest investment in child care in our nations history. That includes after school care which is something parents across the country told me they need.
I saw a number of other creative initiatives. In Milwaukee I saw the success of the Jobs Access Loan program which provides short term, no-interest loans to meet emergency needs. Car repairs. Money to buy uniforms for the job. Moving expenses to relocate near a job.
For a worker just starting out, this small help can mean the difference between success and failure. And the repayment rate is more than 80%--significantly higher than most consumer loans.
The Administration has also proposed a $100 million welfare-to-work plan to bridge new workers to jobs through flexible transportation alternatives--such as van services. Two-thirds of new jobs are in the suburbs but three out of four welfare recipients live in rural areas or central cities.
And the Vice-President has established a community-based Welfare-to-Work Coalition to Sustain Success that is designed to address the broad sweep of issues related to helping welfare recipients hold on to jobs.
Strategies that include the to in welfare-to-work will be critical to its long-term success.
The third challenge is for employers to acknowledge that welfare reform is good business and good for the economy.
Just as we need a change in mind set about new workers, we need a change in mind set about a new inclusive workforce. A strong economy depends on well-trained, educated workers. Successful businesses understand that.
How do employers incorporate these valuable new resources into their workplace?
By mentoring. Investing in training. Providing health care--pensions--and a real stake in the companys future. Because after all, the success of a business depends on the success of its workers.
Perhaps no one understands that better than Michael Shaunessy, President of the Colormatrix Corporation--a small business in urban Cleveland that I visited on my tour. Mr. Shaunessy is here with Lisa Pate, a Colormatrix employee.
Colormatrix is a 24-hour manufacturing facility with over 150 employees. Most of the workers are from the inner city. Most have never worked in a plant. Most have had numerous barriers to employment in the past.
But Mr. Shaunessy has teamed up with Cleveland Works, a non-profit employment initiative that helps train and link new workers to local businesses. Once on board, his new workers start with on-the-job training. Good salaries. Health benefits. A 401K plan. And tuition reimbursement. New workers also interact with senior management and have a real sense of ownership. Over 90% of those hired through Cleveland Works are still on the job today.
And thats why Michael Shaunessy can take the day off to be with us. He knows his plant is in good hands.
During my tour, I also visited the Cessna Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas with President Clinton. Cessna established a state-of-the-art facility to train welfare recipients for production jobs. About 200 graduates of the program are now working there and earning an average wage of $12 an hour. And they are gaining the tools to keep flying high.
I also spent time at the Culinary Training Center in Las Vegas which is a joint union-management partnership between the hotel industry and the Culinary Workers Union. It provides both pre- employment and advanced training so workers can keep climbing the ladder. And the main training center is in the heart of downtown Las Vegas within easy access to public transportation. Its a common sense idea thats making a real difference in peoples lives.
These three employers do different things in different places, but they all understand its good for the bottom-line to have a skilled and involved workforce. And its good business to help workers move from dead-end jobs to life-long careers.
This isnt charity--its economic self-interest.
The fourth challenge is recognizing the hardest work remains because the hardest to serve remain.
We know welfare caseloads are dropping. We dont have precise data on where everyone is going. But we do know that as the caseloads go down, the real challenge is coming into sharper focus.
Many long-term recipients, for example, remain on the rolls. Although overall caseloads are declining, weve seen a small increase in the fraction of those who have been on welfare 3 years or longer. Weve also seen a slight rise in the fraction of those who have been on welfare before.
Its no surprise that those who are having the most trouble leaving the rolls are those with the most barriers to employment. Long-term cases. Those with limited math and reading skills. Poor work histories. Or those struggling to overcome problems with substance abuse.
These are the toughest cases. We knew they would be. But we also know that welfare reform wont succeed unless they do.
The President recognized this and together with Congress provided $3 billion in last years Balanced Budget Act to help address it.
The Department of Labor is charged with investing those funds in local areas around the country that are serving the roughly 20-30 percent of welfare recipients who face the most significant barriers to employment. Our resources dont go to distant bureaucracies, but to the local level.
And if you want to see what an initiative that focuses on the hardest to serve can do, take a trip to Harlem like I did and visit STRIVE--which stands for Support and Training Results in Valuable Employment. It is a no-nonsense program that prepares individuals for the culture of work.
And it stresses support after youre on the job--such as frequent phone contacts and individual counseling sessions. They teach life skills--things we may take for granted. Showing up to work on time. Dressing appropriately. Calling in when youre sick. Displaying a good attitude.
STRIVE is helping to instill core values. And the job retention rate of STRIVE graduates after two years is 80 percent.
There are no quick fixes here. No silver bullet solutions. Were in uncharted territory and this is pioneering work. But there are successful ideas and initiatives out there and all of us can learn from them.
The fifth challenge is to focus on fathers.
The objective of welfare reform is to help parents raise their incomes so they can raise their kids. Usually that parent is the mother. Unfortunately, usually she is also alone. But Mom and Dad both have a responsibility to be there for support--both emotionally and financially.
We know that kids have the best chance to succeed when both parents are involved and responsible. Thats why this Administration is deeply committed to beefing up child support enforcement.
But you need a job to pay child support. And so one of the ways to help kids is to increase the earning potential of fathers so they can meet their obligations.
Last week in Los Angeles, I visited the Parents Fair Share program which is partially funded by the Ford Foundation. This innovative initiative provides fathers with training for higher incomes and counseling for higher self-esteem. It promotes parenting skills and provides a strong support network.
I listened to fathers tell me they want to support their families. They want to re-connect. They dont want to be Deadbeat Dads. They want to be Dedicated Dads. They want to be good fathers and good role models. And thats what this initiative is helping them do.
One father told me that he was ashamed he didnt earn enough to pay for support. When he used to visit his children he would go in depressed and come out angry. Now, hes working and earning. When he sees his kids now said, I smile going in and smile going out.
This is an aspect of welfare reform that hasnt received much attention--but its fundamental to strengthening families and building better futures for kids. And we at the Department of Labor are going to make it a priority to look for model programs to help these fathers help their families.
My sixth and final challenge is a call to action at every level.
We have gone from a single federal program to 50 separate experiments around the country. Our success will depend in large measure on our new partnerships with Governors and local officials. State plans are at various stages of development. And as Ive traveled the nation, Ive seen first- hand how some are working better than others.
Some states, for example, will reduce cash benefits as soon as someone gets a job. Ive also heard many personal stories of individuals who lost their child care subsidies when they started work. But other states, such as Delaware, provide transitional assistance for up to 18 months.
Some states may create unintentional barriers. New workers may have to go to one office to let their caseworker know they have a job. Then another day in the month, take time off to pick up a transportation voucher. Another day--their child care stipend.
Think about it. Thats like having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles three times a month to register your car.
We have to connect the world of welfare to the world of work in every way. And that includes implementing practical, common sense steps to help workers on the job.
I want to commend state and local officials for their creative ideas. But I challenge them to do more. To take a hard look at their programs and see where theres room for improvement--and to sit down with those directly impacted because theres nothing like talking with the people who are actually being served.
I want to commend businesses for getting involved, providing jobs, and creating opportunity. But I challenge them to do more. Join creative initiatives such as the Welfare-to Work Partnership-- headed by Eli Segal--which has taken a leadership role in linking businesses with new workers.
It was little more than an idea one year ago. Today, its an alliance of over 3000 companies-- large and small--reaching out to local partners like Goodwill Industries, the National Urban League, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to move people from lives of dependence to lives of independence.
I want to commend labor unions for their good efforts to help new workers, such as what I saw in Las Vegas. And the faith-based community, foundations and other labor market intermediaries for working together and making a difference. But I challenge all of them to do more.
And I would say this even if I werent at the National Press Club. But I want to commend the press for the articles youve written about the lives of families on welfare. I challenge you to do more. America needs to hear those voices. Keep working to shed light and shatter myths.
Successful welfare-to-work takes work. And it takes us all. No one has all the answers but theres a lot we can learn from each other.
And I believe thats what we need to keep doing to meet these challenges Ive outlined today. To take welfare reform to the next level, and make it a success for the long-term.
Since Ive been Secretary of Labor, Ive made it my mission to get out of Washington to talk with real people. And as I conclude this tour, I can tell you that those who I met on this welfare-to- work mission are no different than the high tech workers I met in Minneapolis...or the coal miners I met in West Virginia...or the small businesswomen I met in Houston.
They all want to come home after a hard days work with a fair days pay. They want to be self- sufficient. They want to be good role models for their kids. They want to contribute to society. They just may need a helping hand up.
The President and his entire Administration are committed to seeing welfare reform succeed for our families and our future.
It takes time. Its complicated because the lives of people on welfare are complicated. If it was easy, it would have been done years ago. So we need to be flexible. Learn from mistakes. Highlight best practices. Thats our responsibility.
But it is also our responsibility to remember that its not programs--its people. Its not just about work--its about dignity and hope.
Its about all of those who wake up in the still of the morning to practice job interviews. Its about parents who want to be proud role models for their kids.
Its about people who had forgotten how to dream--who are now achieving. And its about those still struggling to lift their families up, reaching out their hand to each of us.
Now is the time to extend that hand. The economy is strong. But we cant forget that for those struggling to get off welfare, the most important employment statistic is not 14 million new jobs. Its one job. Its their job. And its our job to help guide them there.
And I firmly believe as long as we work together toward this goal, we will be able to look back a generation from now and say: We made America work for all Americans.