Maria Adame, 26, came to the Glendale Community College CalWORKs center a year ago on a referral from her welfare agency, hoping to find a better way to support herself and her five children. She lived from paycheck to paycheck.
“I had a little bit of medical and dental work experience, but I had never really finished classes,” she said. After completing computer training and receiving a GED at GCC, she had enough certification – and confidence – to join a benefits planning company in El Monte, where she now awaits a raise.
Workforce training like Adame’s is typical of CalWORKs. It cost the state $1.3 million this year to direct her and the many other GCC students on welfare to earning “family sustaining” wages.
It is just one of several programs on the chopping block as California legislators consider the final draft of next year’s community colleges operating budget. While Gov. Gray Davis and legislators have vowed to cut “fat” from college programs, GCC CalWORKs program director Dr. Karen Holden-Ferkich is like other student services administrators in the community college system do not consider CalWORKS to be “fat.”
“We’re hoping that the governor will realize that he’s made a big mistake,” Holden-Ferkich said.
Of Glendale residents on welfare, many of whom are immigrants and refugees, from 2,000 to 3,000 enroll at GCC in the hope of bettering their lives through education, says Alfred Ramirez, workforce specialist at GCC’s CalWORKs. According to Holden-Ferkich, a person who transfers directly from welfare to work rarely earns enough money to support a family. Through individual career counseling, guidance toward educational goals and job placement assistance, CalWORKs’ job is to help them to rise above their “working poor” status.
Each semester, CalWORKs places 175 students in work-study positions, building the work experience they want while they take the classes they will need for job credentials and employment after graduation. While encouraged to carry at least 12 units, students from single-parent families are required to work a minimum of 30 hours per week, and those from two-parent families, 35. It’s not an easy balance for students in need, but a necessary one, given the already limited time and money they get to break away from this kind of dependence on aid.
As it is, county oversight of CalWORKs can occasionally leave students in the lurch.
Parents enrolled as CalWORKs students are offered child care, for which the county is contracted to pay. When the county cannot front the money, CalWORKs contracts with the parents’ own child care workers, often paying the bill out of its operating expenses.
It’s Ramirez’ job to inform the students of their legal rights. Some do not know that they may stay enrolled even after their money has run out and the county orders them to drop out mid-semester. Students can be pushed to maintain their grades, but even low-achieving students here get the same tutoring as more independent peers, whatever the financial situation, says Holden-Ferkich.
“It’s too easy for the county to request that students drop out” and to deny them their rights, said Holden-Ferkich.
Holden-Ferkich said the governor is looking for funding cuts in services that he sees as merely “duplicating” others and that CalWORKs looks to him like a local copy of county welfare; this is a serious misperception, she says. He proposes sending money to the county directly for welfare-to-work aid.
However, immediate employment is not CalWORKs’ focus, but education toward better-earning situations.
“Who’s going to do this next year if there’s no money? No one’s going to be doing it,” Holden-Ferkich said.
In the battle to save CalWORKs, Holden-Ferkich has kept regular contact with state Sen. Jack Scott, D-Pasadena, and local representatives Dario Frommer, D-Glendale, and Carol Liu, D-La Ca§ada Flintridge, the main advocates in the state Legislature.
Meanwhile, Ramirez has been educating the representatives in the Los Angeles County CalWORKs Community College Consortium on the budget crisis and soliciting their support.
CalWORKs collaborates with a number of outside agencies as well, referring to them students with particular needs. The Glendale YWCA, which helps students with special needs, who have substance abuse issues, or are victims of domestic violence, and the Verdugo Jobs Center are among the agencies that have contributed to Ramirez’s extensive letter-writing campaign. Each letter petitions to reinstate funds eliminated from the CalWORKs and testifies to its effects.
All these letters will be packed away with GCC’s delegation to Sacramento when they join the 107 other community college campuses for the state Lobby Day April 29. Until then, Ramirez and Holden-Ferkich worry.
“This [budget cut] is probably the most devastating thing I have seen,” Holden-Ferkich said.
The only funding left for CalWORKs would cover child care – and nothing else.
After the proposed cut, a centralized referral service would no longer exist at GCC or any other California community college to direct 47,000 students on welfare to greater self-sufficiency.
The state budget, including CalWORKs, will be revised May 30, finalized June 30.