Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
WorkFirst Leadership Conference
March 24, 1999
It’s really a pleasure to be here, and to see so many people from all these different agencies from all across the state. As we reflect on progress that we’ve made on WorkFirst, it’s clear that this level of collaboration has been one of our great strengths.
Thank you all very much for being here. I appreciate this opportunity to revisit and recommit ourselves to the ambitious and unique goals of WorkFirst.
We’re here to celebrate the dramatic progress that we’ve made in the last twenty months, but also to discuss the challenges that we face in the years ahead.
The three goals that we set for WorkFirst were very simple and straightforward:
- First, to reduce poverty by helping people get jobs and requiring people who can work to actually work.
- Second, to help people get experience, the education and the training they need to move up the career ladder.
- And third, to protect children and other vulnerable adults who can not work and who need continuing support.
These goals are unique to the State of Washington, and they should be a source of pride for all of us.
In 1997, the legislature, on a bipartisan basis, enacted a welfare reform plan that reflects these goals -- a plan that’s consistent with the values and circumstances of the people of our state.
In enacting welfare reform here in Washington, we refused to follow some national trends. In fact, in negotiations with the legislature, I refused to let welfare reform be an opportunity to institutionalize anti-immigrant prejudice. I threatened to veto legislation unless changes were made to protect legal immigrants. I’m pleased to say those changes were made, and that in our state, we did not discriminate against legal immigrants -- past, present or future.
We also refused to use new federal welfare guidelines to punish or humiliate people for being poor. And we refused to create a program that just pushed people out the door.
For me, welfare reform has never been about reducing caseloads. When I took office, there were some 96,000 families on public assistance. The legislature said that we had to reduce the number of families on our caseloads to 84,000 by July 1, 1999. Today, the current caseload is under that -- roughly 62,000 families. But again, the objective has never been just to simply reduce the number of families on public assistance.
Welfare reform means lifting families out of poverty, and improving lives. If our only goal was to reduce caseloads, we could have easily changed the rules and regulations so that virtually no one qualified for public assistance. We could have said that people with assets more than $100, or people who make part-time income of more than $250 a month no longer qualified for public assistance. And we could have dramatically reduced the roles to less than 10,000 families. But that would have done nothing to reduce poverty and to improve the lives of people.
So, in pursuit of the goals we really cared about -- reducing poverty and improving lives -- we made substantial investments in childcare and training. And then we re-invested the early savings from welfare into more childcare and more training programs.
The result is that we’ve dramatically increased the number of people who have gotten jobs. In the first eight months of fiscal year 99, Employment Security has increased job placements by 46% over the previous year. And as of January of 1999, 28% of adults on our caseloads have outside earnings from work. That’s virtually double the number of people or the percentage of people under the pre-welfare reform days. And the average earnings of those who are working are also going up.
All that is worth celebrating -- not just because the numbers make us all look good, but because the numbers represent more families making progress towards economic independence and prosperity – again, the true goal of welfare reform and WorkFirst.
Those numbers represent an enormous success in transforming the culture of our welfare offices. And they represent a higher level of interagency collaboration than ever before. So I just want to thank each of you for your leadership in this very successful and very enormous set of changes. Everyone -- not just the directors here, but all of you. The managers have done an incredible job of bringing this program to life, overcoming resistance to change, and marshaling the community resources needed to make WorkFirst a collaborative and locally adaptable program.
I know that there are people outside the state government who will probably never understand or appreciate just how difficult it is to achieve this scale of change in such a short period of time. But I want you to know that I do -- and I am very proud, and very grateful to everyone who has worked so hard to make WorkFirst such a success. You and all the other state employees who have achieved this are truly the unsung heroes of WorkFirst’s success. So Washington State is very, very fortunate to have a group of leaders like you in the right place at the right time, rising to this challenge.
But now it’s time to move on to the next stage -- and that’s a more focused concentration of our second goal for WorkFirst: the goal of helping people get the experience and the training they need to move up the career ladder. This will take more hard work, more creativity, and more collaboration.
I realize this is a lot to ask of people who have worked so long and hard and with great success over the last twenty months. In an ideal world, all of you should now be able to have some time to rest on your laurels. But we just can’t do that. In fact, I believe there is already a danger of losing our momentum.
The WorkFirst honeymoon is over, and the great adrenaline rush of starting something new has run it’s course. A lot of people believe that WorkFirst now is as good as it’s ever going to get. We need to prove them wrong.
So now we have to shift from the start up mode to something more sustainable: steady, measurable progress in helping people keep moving up the career ladder after they’ve gotten that first job.
This progress must also extend to the harder-to-serve clients. And this second phase of WorkFirst is a tougher challenge. We have some people who have been on public assistance for many, many years. And as other speakers have already discussed this morning, these long-term welfare recipients often lack the training, the work skills, and the education they need to move into the workforce. Helping them succeed will be a much tougher challenge for all of us. Our rate of progress probably will not be as dramatic as it has been over the last twenty months, but if we succeed that will truly be an accomplishment.
At DSHS, this means that case managers must keep in touch with the clients who have already gotten jobs to make sure they get the information the services and the training they need to keep moving forward. It also means we don’t let participants languish in pre-work search status or penalty status, when they could be making progress toward a better life. We have to take personal responsibility for each participant, and create the individualized road maps that each of them needs to get ahead. And this requires changing the very nature of the system -- from being driven by rules and top down commands, to being driven by an ethic of service to citizens, respect for the judgment of front line workers, and flexibility in achieving results.
At the Community and Technical Colleges, serving the harder-to-serve participants is going to require extra efforts to create more programs that are appropriate, accessible and useful to low wage workers. If existing programs aren’t attracting people, they just don’t need to be canceled, they need to be analyzed to see why they’re not working, and how they need to be changed. If people need intensive short term training provided on Saturdays, that’s what we need to provide. And if people could benefit from training at their work sites, during their lunch hour, we should figure out how to make that happen.
At CTED we need to dig in and find out why the community jobs program is under-utilized. If the targets we’ve set are unrealistic, we need to know that. But we also need to reach out to the non-profit and public sector partners in our communities, find the jobs that need to be done, and match those jobs to the Work First participants who can do them. We must prepare to change this program not just once, but as often as it takes to make it successful. And we must do a better job of interagency collaboration.
At Employment Security, we have a Herculean task: we need to change the relationship between low-wage workers and the job market. People must know that whatever job they are in can lead to a better job. And they must understand that to earn more, they need to learn more. People must have the assistance they need to become the masters, rather than the victims, of a changing economy.
In every office of every agency involved in WorkFirst, we must not let WorkFirst drift. And we can not let our clients drift once they’ve landed that first job. Because we made a promise: a job, a better job, a career. And now we must move heaven and earth to make sure that we keep that promise.
I know it’s easy for people to believe that having changed from the old way to a new way, they can now settle back into a status quo habit of mind. We simply cannot let that happen.
WorkFirst isn’t just about changing from an old system to a new system. It’s about making change and improvement an integral, permanent part of this new system. It is about abolishing the very idea of being content with the status quo.
We have to remember that our mission is urgent and unfinished. Our purpose is to end the misery of poverty -- as fast as we can, for as many families as we can. This program isn’t about process; it’s about people. It’s about the people we were introduced to just a few minutes ago – WorkFirst participants who are working in a hospitality training program with a 95% placement rate. It’s about the people that we’ve read about in the Tacoma News Tribune over the last few days, and the people that have been chronicled in some of your local newspapers.
WorkFirst is about helping people, reducing poverty, improving the lives of families. It’s about hope and opportunity and a better future for kids. It’s about restoring the American dream of upward mobility for people whose dreams have been denied far too long.
We have come a very long way. We have unlocked the doors of opportunity for tens of thousands of families in the state of Washington -- something beyond people’s wildest expectations. But old habits die hard, and some of our old habits -- the habits of program and agency isolation, of traditional forms of service delivery, and of defensiveness and resistance to change – these old, bad habits are still alive and kicking.
We must let go of these habits in order to open the doors wider for more people. And we must work harder at seeing the world from the perspective of low-wage workers and the children they are struggling to support. These are, after all, our customers. And even more important, they are Washington citizens who deserve the very best that we can offer them.
I want to acknowledge that your work is going to be very hard as we move into the second phase of WorkFirst. I know I am asking a lot of people who have already worked very hard, and have accomplished so very much. But as long as there are still low-wage workers and Work First participants out there who need our help to move up the career ladder and to lift their families out of poverty, our work is not finished.
So once again thank you. Thank you for all that you have done, for all your successes, and for taking on this enormous challenge. Thank you for your long-term commitment to achieving results, to continuous improvement, and to economic quality.
We can make Washington state a national model -- not just for successful welfare reform, but for success in truly reducing poverty, expanding opportunity, and restoring the promise of upward mobility for every worker in every corner of our state.
Thank you all very much.