When officials in Rockland County, N.Y., developed Next Steps, an innovative welfare-to-work program that targeted the needs of young mothers and their children, critics questioned whether it would actually work. A year later, its results have been positive, says Associate Professor Judith Smith of the Graduate School of Social Service, who is working with the county to measure Next Steps’ outcomes.
“The program may provide a model for welfare-to-work initiatives in the future,” she adds. Social workers and officials from five Rockland County government agencies created Next Steps in November 1998 to meet the challenges of the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act, which, among other things, required people receiving public assistance to work or risk losing their benefits. The unique, six-month program provides high-quality child care while training mothers in computer skills and offering them counseling. For Smith, Next Steps provided an opportunity to gather data on an understudied population: low-income women entering the work force.
Research on work and family typically involves the white middle class, she says. Smith participated in planning the program. She then visited the Next Steps site at East Ramapo High School once a week during the first six months of the program to interview participants, videotape their group discussions and watch their parenting and work skills develop. To date, 11 of the 24 women in the program have graduated Next Steps. Nine graduates are currently employed – one as a Medicaid case worker, another as an assistant teacher, for example.
“The women who have graduated call me, saying, ‘I love my job,'” says Laura Woolis, the social worker who runs the program. “They see a future for themselves.” Since Next Steps is only a year old and is costly to run its first-year budget totaled more than $323,000, some question its efficacy. Still, it comes at a time when New York state is giving an increasing number of grants to innovative welfare-to-work programs on the local level. And with an economy that of late favors job seekers, policy-watchers are cautiously optimistic about Next Steps’ future.
“It’s the first program of its kind, that I’ve heard of, targeting both the mom and the young child,” says Anne Erickson, legislative analyst for the Greater Upstate Law Project, a group that advocates for the poor. “It’s also a very common-sense approach.” Smith says she plans to follow the work and family lives of Next Steps graduates through the coming year. Her research could become the basis for future policy discussions on programs that ease the transition from welfare to work.