Tough Love In The Hills Of Virginia

Loretta Kilby says she has been looking for work, but you couldn't tell from her resume. The 30-year-old single mother of four girls has squeaked by for the past 10 years with a little cash from babysitting, some support from the two fathers, and a lot of help from Washington: $265 a month in welfare, $492 in food stamps, and free health care from Medicaid.

But all that is about to change, thanks to Republican social reformers. In a bold experiment soon to be repeated throughout America, a small section of the Virginia Piedmont has begun experimenting with the sort of "tough love" welfare overhaul that is now about to pass Congress. For the past four months, Kilby and 150 other welfare moms in Culpeper County have been under strict new orders: Find a job or be assigned one, send your children to school, and identify the fathers to make sure they're paying child support. Refusal means an aid reduction or even a cutoff. What's more, payments for the main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, are limited to two years instead of the old open-ended system.

It's still too early to declare Virginia's radical program a success or failure. But some hopeful signs are appearing in this county of 29,000, about 80 miles west of Washington, D.C. Half the welfare mothers have already found jobs at the local hospital cafeteria, at a uniform-rental company, and an automotive-parts supplier, among other work sites. Meanwhile, several dozen quit the dole, perhaps because they had hidden income. And some missing fathers have ponied up their child support.

One lesson is already clear: As the feds back off from guarantees of care to the poor, the disabled, and the elderly, much of the burden simply falls to institutions in the community. "You cannot have welfare reform without bringing business to the table," insists Calvin Coleman, director of county social services. Coleman left his own restaurant business to enter social work here in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains seven years ago. Since then, he has managed to weave more than a dozen county businesses into almost every part of the government security blanket.

BEST FACE. Culpeper may seem an odd laboratory to test the theories of the Third Wave Welfare State. It's best known as the Civil War site of the largest cavalry battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere (the Yankees lost). Today, it's a mix of horse and cattle farms and light industry, where people still exchange pleasantries on the streets. But like many rural areas, it hides poverty and hopelessness behind its picket fences. The number of food stamp recipients, about 2,300, approximates the 10% national average.

With its job-training program already under way, Culpeper volunteered in July to inaugurate GOP Governor George Allen Jr.'s Virginia Initiative for Employment Not Welfare. When Coleman sought help from the local Chamber of Commerce, business members suggested he forget training for specific jobs and "give us people with a work ethic, willing to work as a team," says chamber director Norma K. Dunwody.

The result was a six-week course emphasizing such basics as how to arrange for backup babysitters, car pools, and rides to work. Business execs conduct practice interviews, then mentor the new hires. In return for shaping the curriculum, 25 businesses--from car dealers to cleaning services to a funeral home--agreed to give graduates first crack at some of their entry-level jobs. Other companies formed a Literacy Council. A builder donated office space, and other businesses gave the materials to teach the skills needed to pass high school equivalency exams.

Another lesson from Culpeper is that reform costs lots of up-front money. Coleman's operating budget more than doubled, to $343,000. Once welfare mothers get jobs, they keep such crucial benefits as free medical care, since the first serious illness could force the family back on welfare. Trouble getting to a job? Social Services will repair a car, provide gasoline, or even pay a traffic fine. Most important is the free child care for any mother who needs it. From a renovated school, Social Services is building a day-care and job-training site. For Helen D., a 29-year-old mother of three kids under age eight, the free, all-day child care is critical. "Paying for day care, it hardly pays to go back to work," she says. "With a little help, a lot of people wouldn't be in my situation."

Sometimes, the innovations of local folks have proven more valuable than government dollars. Encourage welfare moms to ride to school with their kids, take an adult education course, work part-time as classroom aides, and return home on the bus, the school superintendent suggested. And Social Services employees suggested having bankers teach recipients about mortgages and credit. "Once you explain how they have the potential to buy their own home, you can really motivate people to work and save," says Coleman.

Will such programs work in the inner city with its concentrated poverty and intransigent bureaucracies? That's uncertain. With its jobless rate of 3.3% and a rural help-your-neighbor tradition, Culpeper's experience may not translate. And the sheer scale of a city's problems will be much more difficult to tackle as cutbacks reduce funds for day care, transportation, and infant formula.

But city or country, "most people want to work, and often it's just a matter of breaking the pattern," says Lisa Houck, a Culpeper social worker. Kilby agrees: "I've always wanted a regular job--always. I know my destiny is to get a good-paying job, but without the experience, I know I need help." To get that here in the Piedmont or in places 100 times bigger, tough love and local action may be just the right mix.

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