by Jim Hight

You may think it's a vicious assault on poor children or you may consider it a way to get lazy parents off welfare and into jobs. Either way, welfare reform will begin rearranging the economic landscape of Humboldt County and the rest of California on the first day of the new year.

Feeling the effects will be not only the 4,000-plus families now receiving aid but other workers, job-seekers, business owners and the 400 people employed in the county's Department of Social Services.

On Jan. 1, Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) replaces Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). With a few exceptions, every adult on TANF will have to get a job or volunteer service position within two years. If they lose that job, they can get back on welfare for a while, but the revolving door shuts on them for good after they've received aid for a total of five years.

Gone is the GAIN program, which helped people get off welfare by sending them to vocational training or community college for up to two years. Here comes CalWORKS which, under federal rules, can only put 20 percent of recipients in training and none in higher education. The rest must go to work.

"We'll have to ask people, 'What types of skills do you have right now?'" said John Frank, director of social services.

Frank and his staff are finalizing their plan to implement CalWORKS. They appear undaunted by the challenge.

"We'll find (jobs for people) inside the county and outside the county, and we'll train for what the market can bear," Frank said. "We have been meeting with people in economic development. Hopefully we'll be able to develop some additional jobs locally."

But some observers are sounding an alarm about an impending collision between CalWORKS and economic reality.

"The number of jobs needed to accommodate this new work force is staggering," said Kathy Moxon, director of Institute of the North Coast, a year-old program of the Humboldt Area Foundation that focuses on community and economic development.

At the current rate of job growth about 100 new jobs are created every month in Humboldt County. But job seekers are eagerly -- sometimes desperately -- seeking those jobs. Recent layoffs at Moonstone Mountaineering in Arcata and Eel River Sawmills in Fortuna have pushed an additional 200 workers into unemployment.

"You don't have to be an Einstein to figure out that right now, without a new work force coming in, there aren't enough good jobs for the people in Humboldt County," said Lloyd Throne, executive director of Redwood Community Action Agency. "The key (to making welfare reform work) is economic development and job creation in our county."

"Job creation must be part of the plan," echoed Moxon. "Unless we are able to expand the regional economic base to create new jobs, placements for welfare recipients will be seasonal and temporary, or they'll result in the displacement of other workers."

One economic analyst also pointed out that many of the jobs available in the county require skills and experience than many welfare recipients lack.

"We've been creating jobs locally but whether those jobs can be filled by that type of worker is a complete unknown," said Phyllis Lammers, a statistician who publishes yearly economic status reports.

Lammers does see one silver lining in the welfare reform cloud. "It's probably not the worst time to do something like this because the national economy is in good shape, and so is local economy, if you look at our past. I'm glad it's happening now and not in 1991 or 1982."

Also softening the blow, $45 million in grants will be available to California counties to develop innovative ways of helping long-term welfare recipients get jobs. Unlike the "formula" grants apportioned to counties based on their welfare caseload, these "competitive" grants will be awarded based on innovation.

"We have a lot of good minds in Humboldt County," said Throne. "If we get innovative we could be extremely competitive in the state to solve some of these difficult issues."

Return to UPFRONT newsbriefs

The North Coast Journal Table of Contents