Salina Perez was running out of choices.
With two children in diapers and an incarcerated husband, the 23-year-old says, she was broke. Full-time work was hard to come by, and even harder to keep given her responsibilities as a parent. Part-time work didn't cover her bills.
Thus, she'd been on and off the Federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — known locally as Colorado Works, and commonly as welfare. She says she wasn't thrilled to accept the help, so she'd dropped out as soon as she felt she could afford it, only to end up back on it later.
Then in spring 2013, she went to El Paso County's Department of Human Services for help again. This time she wanted something else, too: help finding a job. Given that TANF aims to help recipients get into careers and off the government dime — in fact, job help and internship-like community service are program requirements — DHS was happy to oblige.
El Paso County has long contracted with Discover Goodwill of Southern and Western Colorado to run its Career Development Center, where many recipients of TANF and food assistance are given job-related classes, testing and placement assistance. Perez says she ended up getting all-expenses-paid training from a government-funded Goodwill program to become a certified nursing assistant, and job placement.
These days, Perez is one of two CNAs employed full-time by Goodwill's Possibilities Program, which helps developmentally disabled adults learn life and job skills and stay healthy. The only assistance she receives from the government these days is a child-care subsidy. And she's taking online classes at night through Pikes Peak Community College to get her prerequisites for nursing school.
"I got here so quickly," Perez says, "with the help of family and DHS."
Not just a handout
Welfare has come a long way since Ronald Reagan described what came to be known as a "welfare queen," a lazy mother who lived off never-ending government entitlements.
These days, a TANF applicant must have a dependent child and be extremely low-income. A mother of two, for instance, must make no more than $421 a month.
Cheryl Schnell, manager of the office of employment and family support for the county, says the county averaged 2,037 people a month on TANF last year. In the first two months of this year, that number was up slightly, to an average of 2,081.
But critics might be surprised to learn that local TANF recipients only average about six months in the program. Schnell also notes that they're limited to 60 months on the program in their lifetime.
"There's no more of the welfare queen being on public assistance their entire life, that whole stereotype," she says.
When people get on TANF, Schnell says, they are divided into groups. Relatives, usually grandparents, who are caring for children are the only group not required to go through employment help to receive assistance. Of the others, people who have an impediment to employment — like a disability, an injury or pregnancy, or being a victim of domestic violence — are directed to county case managers. Those considered "job-ready" go to Goodwill's Career Development Center. The center also runs a smaller, separate program for those who are unemployed or underemployed and are on a nutrition assistance program, such as food stamps.
All told, center programs placed 3,739 people in jobs in 2011, 5,796 a year later, and 5,894 last year. Schnell says the uptick is likely linked to the recovering economy.
But a good range of programs doesn't hurt, either.
The road forward
When people first come to the Career Development Center, operations manager Clint Garcia says, they're set up with a case manager, then placed in an eight-week class known as Viewpoints. It focuses on soft skills that many TANF recipients may have never learned or may need to relearn, from money management to anger management. Simultaneously, they're being given job leads.
When the course is complete, participants move on to Directions or the Colorado Work Experience Program. A computer program tests each person's interests; follow-up interviews further narrow job fields.
Participants then go through a Learning Assessment Program, which measures whether they have an aptitude for the careers that interest them. There are 65 assessments for different career fields. When a match is made, they're hooked up with a local employer. Each person must "volunteer" for the employer for 88 to 156 hours a month. The idea is to give people experience in their chosen field, and hopefully open the door to a job.
Of course, most people who are hired start in entry-level positions; the hope is that they will get excited enough about the field to pursue further education.
But Goodwill also offers a few training programs of its own for El Paso County TANF recipients. Its CNA program, recently honored nationally, takes people with no training and provides them with everything they need to start their career. TANF pays for the whole process, including job placement, and even months of subsidized wages to employers willing to hire a newbie.
"It's a try before you buy," Garcia explains, "and it's been a win-win for us."
Garcia says he's in the process of setting up another training program for people who would like to work for call centers — a major area employer. And he'd like to set up more programs to train people to be car mechanics, baristas and other popular positions.