City-County Task Force Guides Welfare Reform Implementation

In Chicago and Cook County, a joint Welfare Reform Task Force has been established to ensure that as welfare reform is implemented, children are protected, adults are given the tools and supports they need to get and hold a job, and welfare resources are allocated fairly among municipalities and counties. One of Chicago’s successful transportation initiatives, the Job Oasis Project, connects unemployed, minority inner-city residents with jobs in suburban industrial parks.

In late January 1997, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Cook County Board President John H. Stroger, Jr. established the City of Chicago-Cook County Welfare Reform Task Force, charging it to advise them on the impact that the State’s response to federal changes in welfare policy would have on the City and County, and giving it two years to do its job. "The work of the City of Chicago-Cook County Welfare Reform Task Force is important because it will take all of us – government, business, foundations, social services agencies – working together to ensure that welfare reform really brings about positive constructive change in the lives of those who are directly affected by it," said Mayor Daley. "When this occurs, lives are transformed, families stay together, and neighborhoods are revived – and everyone benefits from that."

Mayor Daley and President Stroger recognized that the welfare changes would affect tens of thousands of people in Illinois – families, mostly mothers and children, who have been largely sustained by government assistance, and immigrants, who are mostly elderly and disabled. They also recognized the potential hardships to be faced by many residents – especially children – and the potential added burdens on City and County resources which would ultimately, and in different ways, affect all residents of Cook County and Chicago. When the Task Force was announced, President Stroger commented that "in the coming months we will have to work together in the City and suburbs to ensure that welfare reform works and that no one is left behind in the process."

The non-partisan and independent Task Force is comprised of a unique mix of business, social service, philanthropic, education and advocacy organizations; the representatives of these organizations bring to the body a broad base of knowledge about children and families, jobs and job training, health care, immigrants, nutrition, labor and the workforce.

Principles Guiding Welfare Reform

To address the complicated set of issues surrounding welfare reform, the Mayor and County Board President established four guiding principles for the Task Force to follow:

Protect Children – The health, safety and care of children must not be compromised as welfare programs direct more parents into jobs. Access to affordable and high-quality child care, including before- and after-school care for older children, is fundamental. Also critical are social service programs that identify and respond to situations where children are put at risk because of work requirements or family poverty. The cut-off of aid to families due to sanctions or time limits jeopardizes the well-being of children.

Provide Adults with Tools and Supports Needed to Work – The majority of adults who must work under the new law will need ongoing supports to do so. The most important tools are education, job-readiness training and basic skills development. High quality child care, sometimes at off-hours and for infants, must be more readily available. Most entry level workers will also need continued financial support and health benefits until incomes exceed poverty levels. Finally, efficient, affordable transportation and housing options must be in place.

Provide Equitable Treatment to Municipalities and Counties – Local units of government have increased responsibilities under the new welfare structure. This shift from federal to state and local governments must be monitored and new programs structured so that resources are fairly allocated – based on need – among Illinois municipalities and counties.

Protect Local Governments from Unfunded Mandates – Some responsibilities passed to local governments have not been accompanied by adequate funding. Local governments cannot bear the full financial burden for problems resulting from restructuring the welfare system. Nor can nonprofit religious and community organizations be expected to fill all gaps left by the changes. A fair and reliable financial base for welfare reforms must be developed.

 Accomplishments and Lessons Learned

At the end of its first year of operation the Task Force assessed its accomplishments and the lessons it had learned and specified what it wanted to do in its remaining year. Among its accomplishments, the Task Force developed and executed a legislative strategy for implementation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families plan in Illinois; held two business summits, one in September 1997 for some of the largest employers in the City and County and the second in March 1998 for chambers of commerce and other umbrella business groups. The purpose of the summits was to brief them on the opportunities to become involved in welfare-to-work efforts and to expand awareness of welfare reform by working with diverse constituencies, including business, community service and advocacy organizations, academic institutions, philanthropy, and religious communities. In addition, the Task Force has established working groups on children’s issues, workforce concerns, legislative strategy, transportation and housing, and saw its recommendations for increasing the quality and quantity of child care become City policy.

The Task Force reported that lessons learned included several relating to moving recipients into jobs:

Quality job training, education, placement, retention and job creation services, along with transportation and quality child care, are essential to successful welfare policy.

In the later years of welfare reform, the challenge of helping individuals make the transition from welfare to work will be greater because the core of the caseload will be the hardest-to-place individuals, especially if the current strong economy falters.

There may not be enough appropriate jobs for all those seeking them.

It is important to consider other issues affecting the lives of many welfare recipients. Domestic violence, substance abuse, literacy problems, lack of housing and nutrition – all are barriers to self-sufficiency.

Task Force plans for the second year include: continuing to engage the business community in efforts to respond to welfare reform; engaging constituencies that are not otherwise engaged in welfare reform efforts, such as community development corporations and health agencies; monitoring the implementation of welfare reform and tracking how families, individuals, agencies and governmental services are affected; and recommending policies and program ideas that will help find long-term solutions to the problems of poverty.

Job Oasis Worker Mobility Project

A model for connecting inner city residents with suburban jobs in the Chicagoland area is the Job Oasis Worker Mobility Project of the long-established Suburban Job-Link Corporation, a nonprofit agency. The President of the Corporation serves on the transportation committee of the Welfare Reform Task Force.

The project links African-American and Hispanic-American unemployed, inner-city residents living on Chicago’s West Side with the suburban industrial parks that surround O’Hare Airport, an area where there is a surplus of entry-level and blue-collar jobs. There are more than 3,000 businesses in this Oasis job target area, many of which are experiencing increasing difficulty in finding and retaining good entry-level workers. Job Oasis helps them meet these immediate employment needs; of equal importance, it allows these employers to expand without having to leave the Chicagoland area.

Job Oasis is intended to overcome both the transportation and job information barriers that keep poor inner-city residents from participating in a thriving regional economy. It is open to any resident of the target area who is currently unemployed, providing them with the support they need to find and keep a good suburban job. Since the manufacturers still prefer to hire through employee referrals, the project promotes a personalized community information network as a key to employment, with those already hired bringing news of their employers’ new job openings to their friends and neighbors.

The program has a fleet of vans and buses and uses a public transit subscription service. Individuals are picked up within three blocks of their homes and brought to the Oasis area, for both interviews and jobs, and returned home. This service is available for all three shifts. As the participants move into full-time jobs they are helped to transition to other types of reliable transportation and helped to acquire a clear understanding of the transportation choices available to inner-city residents working in the suburbs.

Start-up funds were provided by the Mayor, and the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training worked with Suburban Job-Link step by step to create the project. The return on the Mayor’s investment has been considerable as the program has been effective in reversing the city-to-suburb dollar flow. Several hundred formerly unemployed inner-city residents are now working, and it is estimated that newly employed inner-city workers are bringing $9-12 million into low-income West Side neighborhoods through their participation in the larger regional economy. In addition, Chicago’s public transit agency is institutionalizing some of the Suburban Job-Link’s reverse commute routes.

 Contact: Sunny Fischer, Executive Director, City of Chicago-Cook County Welfare Reform Task Force, (312) 641-7260, or John Plunkett, President, Suburban Job-Link, (630) 595-0010