By Greg Moore
Earlier this year, President Clinton touted five huge companies as models for his welfare-to-work program. He urged other businesses to follow their lead and help move welfare recipients into the work force.
So far, in West Virginia, business has not been good.
Those five companies, and others like them, haven't offered much direct help to the state in its efforts to get people off the welfare rolls.
"My sense is there's an overall willingness to be involved, but there's a general unwillingness by businesses to do anything specific," said Joe Barker, chairman of the West Virginia Welfare Reform Coalition.
The coalition, which includes representatives from state government and private businesses, has been trying to get businesspeople to participate in shaping welfare-to-work programs in West Virginia.
"This is something everyone has to take a stake in," Barker said. "If they business owners aren't at the table, the cost of not being involved could very well be higher than the cost of taking part in the program, and this could come back to bite them."
In some ways, it's not surprising that large companies haven't had much of an impact in the Mountain State, Barker said.
"I was at a conference not too long ago with an official from one of these companies, and she readily admitted that those corporations are hard-pressed to be major players in rural areas," he said.
Representatives from the five companies lauded by Clinton in his State of the Union address - Burger King, United Parcel Service, Monsanto, Sprint and United Airlines - offered several reasons why their programs haven't spread to West Virginia and other rural states.
Large companies, small presence
Most large companies simply don't have enough facilities in such areas to create new jobs for welfare recipients, they said.
"We want to start these programs in areas where Sprint has its largest business presence," said Sprint spokesman Darrell Fortune. The company's program revolves around its headquarters in the Kansas City area.
In fact, of the five companies mentioned by Clinton, four center their efforts in the areas near their headquarters. The fifth, Atlanta-based UPS, has hired welfare recipients in more than 20 mostly urban areas around the country.
There are other reasons. The former Monsanto plant in Nitro is now run jointly Monsanto's chemicals division and another company.
The chemicals division, because it's no longer part of the main Monsanto company, isn't taking part in the program, said Monsanto spokeswoman Scarlett Foster.
And local Burger Kings aren't likely to hire people off welfare as part of that company's program, because they're locally owned.
Only company-owned stores are taking part in the program, said Burger King spokeswoman Kim Miller. All Charleston-area Burger Kings are locally-owned franchises, according to a manager at the restaurant on MacCorkle Avenue near the Kanawha Mall.
Despite all these stumbling blocks, at least one coalition member thinks big business will have to lead the way.
"We need to look at the big companies. They're probably in a better position to help institute the necessary programs," said John Ranson, who was secretary of commerce, labor and environmental resources under Gov. Gaston Caperton from 1990 to 1994.
Big vs. little
Obviously, a big company with 50,000 employees can provide more new jobs than a small company with five or six. That's one reason, but not the only one, Ranson said.
"It's not as simple as just providing jobs," he said. "You may have to provide day care for single mothers. You may have to have mentoring programs for unskilled workers. You may have to teach people something as simple as telephone skills, interpersonal skills."
Small businesses just don't have the resources for those kinds of programs, he said.
Barker acknowledges the problems that the welfare-to-work program poses for small businesses. Even so, he believes they may be more important to the program, just because there are more small businesses than large ones in West Virginia.
"I think that's where there may be some action," he said. "Most of our employment base does come from small firms. They're there, they know their communities."
Small businesses might be more interested in incentives such as a tax credit, Ranson said. "It might mean a lot more to them than it would to a big company," he said.
In the past three months, about 375 businesses have received tax credits through the state's Work Opportunity Tax Credit program, said Nancy Daugherty of the Bureau of Employment Programs.
The program gives tax credits to businesses that hire people who meet certain criteria. Daugherty estimated that 85 percent of the businesses who receive the credit have hired people off the welfare rolls.
But even that isn't as much as officials expected. "We've definitely gotten off to a slow start," she said. She expects more businesses to apply once they become more familiar with the program.
That'll help, Barker said, but he's not sure how much. "Tax credits may not be the answer," he said. "If a worker is really ill-prepared to be in the workplace in the first place, then those tax credits aren't worth it.
"Better an unsubsidized, productive worker than a subsidized, unproductive worker."
Another problem with welfare reform is job displacement, or when welfare recipients take jobs normally filled by workers not on welfare.
When President Clinton announced the welfare-to-work plan, he saw people coming off the welfare rolls and stepping into new jobs created by the booming economy. Instead, former welfare recipients sometimes take jobs that would normally be filled by people not on welfare.
"That's going to be a tough one, trying to avoid displacement of workers," Barker said. "That's one of the things we have to figure out."
Both Barker and Ranson believe as more specifics about welfare-to-work are decided, the private sector will become more involved. They emphasized they're not pointing the finger at state businesses.
"I'm certainly not accusing them of low commitment. I think it's only natural that there would be, perhaps, some reservations on their part," Ranson said. "But it is absolutely critical that they be a part of this."
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