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'WORK FIRST' TOPS LIST OF WELFARE GOALS HERE COUNTY PROGRESS HINGES ON BUDGET DETAILS

"Work First," not "workfare," is the watchword for welfare reform in Erie County, Social Services Commissioner Deborah A. Merrifield said Wednesday as details of the state budget were released.

"Our county executive's priority is Work First," Ms. Merrifield said, referring to County Executive Gorski. "He wants to put recipients in the work force at the earliest point possible, and we would use workfare as one step in that direction. Right now, we don't know whether the new budget is going to help or harm our reaching that goal."

Gov. Pataki, a strong proponent of workfare, has set goals for counties to move welfare recipients into workfare jobs -- usually for a county government agency or department -- or service to the community or a non-profit agency.

Under the budget plan, all but the most disabled New Yorkers would be required to work for their welfare benefits, and a voucher system would replace cash assistance for single, able-bodied people.

Pataki abandoned his call for a gradual reduction of welfare benefits over the five-year federal lifetime limit. But he got other elements of his welfare-reform plan such as mandatory drug screening for all recipients. He insisted earlier this year that welfare reform above and beyond that required by the federal government would be part of any budget deal.

The budget plan would eliminate Home Relief, the state's program for childless, able-bodied adults, and replace it with a "safety net" program. The new program would also provide assistance for families who outlast their five years of welfare benefits. That program would provide cash benefits for the first two years and then a voucher system with small cash allowances for personal needs.

John Orlando, president of Local 1095, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that "anybody who thinks workfare will make a miraculous change in the way welfare used to be or that it will be better in the future, I'd like to see what kind of pillow they are dreaming on," he said.

"Without education or some type of training that would allow these welfare people to go out and apply for jobs they would be qualified for, Pataki is doing nothing but letting them work off their welfare checks at the expense of a future good-paying job.

"Pataki doesn't have any carrot for them. With workfare, they get a welfare check and Medicaid.

"Then when they have been on welfare five years, they will get thrown off, according to this so-called reform. Then what happens to that person?"

Orlando and Ms. Merrifield have serious concerns -- but for very different reasons -- about proposed workfare requirements.

Federal officials are still debating whether the number of hours a welfare recipient is required to work should be calculated on only minimum wage or on minimum wage plus some benefits.

"If it is wages and benefits, it could seriously be an impediment to our being able to comply with the governor's timetable for moving welfare clients into workfare," Ms. Merrifield said. "Right now, to qualify for being in the workfare program, a client must work 20 hours a week.

"If the equivalent in wages is reached at 19 hours, I guess we could not count them as being in the workfare program."

Orlando wants federal officials to go beyond the minimum wage.

"My people, who make $9 an hour cleaning county buildings, are working alongside workfare people who are making $2.70 an hour if you figured out what welfare benefits they get," Orlando said.

"This budget is nothing but a strain on all public employees."

The bottom line, Ms. Merrifield emphasized, "is that so much is changing right now, it is hard to sift through and even begin to understand what is ahead for welfare."

"It seems there is good news on the training side, bad news on workfare and no news on the state's job subsidy side," she said.

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