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 August 1, 1999

Robust economy rounds out welfare reform

The second anniversary of federal welfare reform on July 1 proved a birthday worth celebrating in Boulder County.

Since July 1997, the number of families in the county receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has dropped 39 percent from 766 to 467.

Over the last two years 491 people who were unemployed have found jobs, receiving an average full-time wage of $7.72 per hour — the highest average wage earned by TANF participants in Colorado.

Under the new welfare law, recipients are limited to a maximum 24 months assistance unless they participate in a work activity such as training, searching for jobs or vocational education.

Another key element of the law change — one acting as a powerful incentive in helping many people toward work and self sufficiency — is that welfare now carries a five-year lifetime limit.

The welfare reform also provides increased funding for a variety of work-assistance programs. Together with the booming economy, especially along the Front Range, this has created the climate for a happy marriage between people seeking work and businesses looking for workers.

Boulder County Commissioner Jana Mendez says community and business support has been at the root of the success in getting people off welfare and back to work in this area.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved so far,” she says.

Presentations have been made to about 200 businesses, and Mendez says there has been a tremendous response in terms of hiring people and offering internships. In addition, community-based volunteer and non-profit organizations have played an important role.

Among the elements making up a comprehensive welfare-to-work approach in this region are job and life-skills training and assessments, education, internships, mentoring, assistance with day care and housing, and domestic violence and mental health counseling.

“Overall I feel we have a good package, but we realize this is not a one-size-fits-all situation and are always looking at what else we can do. I’m very grateful to all those who are working so hard to help others build their self confidence and self respect,” says Mendez.

Just one of a dozen programs aimed at helping the transition of TANF participants from welfare to work is Project Work Together, a mentor program coordinated by Tessa Davis.

Davis says Boulder was the first county in Colorado — and one of the first in the United States — to launch such a program that closely matches volunteer mentors with TANF recipients who are typically single mothers with children. The program recently won an award from the National Association of Counties.

Davis stresses that mentors are there to support, encourage and empower — not to rescue. That support might cover anything from schoolwork, learning English and career counseling to organizing the household.

“Often it just involves listening, acting as a role model and sharing experiences,” Davis says.

Christine Highnam, director of Boulder County’s Department of Social Services, believes the 1997 reforms have been very positive for most people, “many of whom left welfare and found jobs on their own.”

Of the remaining 467 TANF clients, about 150 are cases of child-care assistance, perhaps where grandparents are looking after youngsters while the parents work.

That leaves a challenging core of around 300 clients who may have some serious hurdles to overcome such as physical and mental-health disabilities or substance abuse. Highnam says efforts are being made to find specific, creative solutions to help these people.

While she remains positive and confident about the immediate future, Highnam admits to concern about the lifetime five-year limit on assistance, which she believes could plunge some families into trouble if there were an economic downturn.

Workforce Boulder County is responsible for administering most federal and state employment programs and offers listing and placement, screening, testing and training opportunities for young people and adults.

Director Toya Speckman says they take a positive and proactive approach, helping people into the workforce and also training them for careers with advancement potential so they can move ahead and remain self sufficient even if the economy dips.

Michele Holiday, a single parent who once ran her own home-based hairdressing business in Denver, has been through the TANF system and come out the other side with enhanced skills — and a job.

After arriving in Boulder about a year ago, she began improving her prospects by taking computer classes and learning other skills such as interviewing techniques and how to write and present a resume.

Today she’s a receptionist at the Center Green Court offices of Workforce Boulder County, where she started in May, and works 20 hours each week.

“I would advise anyone to take as many classes as possible,” Holiday says. “I learned a lot that way.”

She also points toward the county’s great resource centers where job seekers will find easy access to computers, word processors, the Internet, resume assistance and much more.

The second anniversary of federal welfare reform on July 1 proved a birthday worth celebrating in Boulder County.

Since July 1997, the number of families in the county receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has dropped 39 percent from 766 to 467.

Over the last two years 491 people who were unemployed have found jobs, receiving an average full-time wage of $7.72 per hour — the highest average wage earned by TANF participants in Colorado.

Under the new welfare law, recipients are limited to a maximum 24…

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