Emory Report

 June 23, 1997

 Volume 49, No. 34

Rich's students tackle real
world welfare-to-work issues

Whether at the White House Conference on Community Empowerment that took place in Detroit this past April or in individual discussions with Georgia state officials, Michael Rich always mentions his students' most recent research project.

Rich's urban policy students have tackled a problem that has challenged urban policy planners for decades: How can government and private companies move people from welfare to work?

Based on a comprehensive analysis of the Atlanta metro area job availability, skill requirements, salary/benefit levels and transportation options, Rich's students have offered a range of long- and short-term policy recommendations, from tax incentives for private companies that provide child care services to van pools and school drop-out prevention programs.

"State officials were so impressed with the students' work, that the departments of human resources and labor have agreed to give me data for the Atlanta metro area on welfare caseloads and job openings from the state's job bank to use in further refining the students' analysis," said Rich, an associate professor of political science. "I think it's pretty noteworthy that the efforts of a group of Emory students will be used to inform policy debate and discussion about how to best implement welfare reform."

Each spring semester Rich and assistant professor Robert Brown alternate teaching the course, which covers contemporary problems facing urban areas in the United States, particularly related to poverty and the physical, social and economic decline in inner-city neighborhoods. The class research project is different every year, but the basic goal is for students to develop solutions for urban ills based on original research. The issue of welfare was not only timely, but gave students an appreciation of the complexity of social issues, according to several students in the class.

"You can read about the welfare problem, but it doesn't have the same impact until you see the job location and the lack of public transportation available to get people to those jobs," said junior Mary Miller, who is working this summer for the Living Room organization, a housing assistance program for homeless people who have HIV. According to Miller, other factors that prevent welfare recipients from obtaining available jobs are mismatched job skills, the low number of entry-level jobs that pay a livable wage and the loss of important benefits available through welfare such as health insurance, but often not offered with entry or lower level jobs.

The discrepancy between where jobs are and where people without transportation live is dramatically illustrated by a map of the Atlanta metro area that depicts where jobs are located, superimposed on a grid that shows the availability of public transportation.

Students obtained data for the maps by systematically collecting information on 3,000 jobs posted in the "Help Wanted" section of the January 26 issue of The Atlanta Journal/ Constitution. The students called employers to obtain information on company location, salary, benefits, education and experience requirements for the advertised jobs. The information was geocoded (address matched) to determine the geographic location of job openings within the metro area and matched with the spatial distribution of the welfare population.

The students then attempted to determine how many of these available jobs in the Atlanta metropolitan area and in the suburbs are accessible to welfare households, both in terms of transportation access and education and skill levels. A key issue was how many accessible jobs pay a high enough wage to enable a family to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Rich pointed out that "lots of available jobs require only a high school degree and six-months or less work experience, but they don't pay enough for a family to be self-sufficient. And when people leave welfare for work, the rug is pulled out from under them. Their benefits run out in six months or a year-seven dollars an hour can't compensate for the support they lose."

Using data from the class survey results, students also wrote a memorandum with policy recommendations summarizing the major findings of the survey and discussing the findings in the context of what the state needed to do in order to meet its federally legislated mandate of moving 50 percent of its welfare caseload to work by the year 2002.

In his policy memo, Senior Jon Sims demonstrated the complexity of the welfare issue by arguing that public transportation alone wasn't the answer to matching welfare recipients with jobs. He pointed out that although only 3.9 and 2.1 percent of the jobs advertised in Cobb and Gwinnett counties are accessible by public transportation compared to 86 percent of the jobs in DeKalb and 97.3 percent in Atlanta, other factors must be considered. "While it's true that the job opportunities in Cobb and Gwinnett counties pay substantially higher, Atlanta jobs provide child care at a much higher rate than any other area, and these jobs also are more inline with the educational levels of current welfare recipients," he noted.

Next spring the urban policy class will take on a new research project, but Rich plans to build on the attention generated among state and federal government officials by this welfare project. In fact, the Clinton administration is asking Congress for $600 million to fund welfare-related transportation programs over the next six years in five major cities. " Research like what we're doing hopefully will help localities determine the most appropriate way to spend money so people can move from welfare to work," said Rich.

-Nancy Seideman

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