Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
WorkFirst Business Appreciation and Recognition Event
May 18, 2004

Good afternoon everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here.

WorkFirst is an incredible success story. We’ve heard the numbers, and they bear repeating:

§ More than 140,000 parents helped off welfare

§ The lowest welfare rate for our state in more than 30 years, with less than 2.3% of our state’s population receiving welfare grants

§ A 42% drop in the number of families on welfare since 1997

These are very impressive results. But WorkFirst goes well beyond just getting people off welfare. Our philosophy is to help people get a job, get a better job, and achieve a better life.

Just reducing welfare rolls would be easy, if that’s our only goal. It’s not. Our measurement focuses on employment status one year after leaving public assistance plus income gain.

And we’re seeing long-term trends that prove this approach is working. A recent Office of Financial Management report highlighted changes in Washington families’ income during the 1990s. The findings are based on census data, and show that we’ve turned things around in our state for the people WorkFirst serves.

For example, the overall median family income in our state increased 11.4 percent in the 1990s. But female-headed families with children had the greatest increase in median family income—31.5 percent. Most families on public assistance are headed by women.

The overall poverty rate in our state didn’t change much during the 1990s, dropping slightly from 13.7 percent to 13.3 percent. But the percentage of women with children in poverty declined dramatically—21.3 percent.

Finally, the OFM report found that female-headed families with children showed the most dramatic change in the source of their income during the 1990s. Public assistance dropped from 22.1 percent of family income to 8.2 percent for this group. That’s a 66 percent reduction! More and more families are relying on work for family income instead of public assistance. That’s part of our WorkFirst program! To provide incentives for work instead of old policies like “earn one dollar from work, lose it in grant assistance.”

Such significant changes in income levels, poverty rates, and public assistance dependence are proof that our welfare reform efforts are making life much better for thousands of Washington families. Critics said drops in caseload were due to the robust economy, and that caseloads would go up in a tough economy. Wrong! Caseloads are still dropping and in the late 80s, we saw caseloads go up in a good economy!

Today we are honoring 73 businesses who have been vital contributors to this success. I want to personally thank all of the businesses that participate in this program. Today we will recognize a few of the many highly successful partnerships in this program. But we also honor everyone else in this program too. We honor the power of working together to make our communities and our state better.

Businesses like Fred Meyer in Wenatchee, which helps out at WorkFirst workshops by conducting practice job interviews. They’ve also hired many WorkFirst parents over the years, some of whom have stayed for at least two years and had opportunities to advance.

Businesses like Basic American Foods in Moses Lake, which allows WorkFirst hires to take job-training courses at Big Bend Community College. The college and the Workforce Development Council provide tuition assistance.

And businesses like Marshall’s in Seattle, which has a policy of hiring employees from the neighborhoods in which their stores are located. At one recent hiring event, nearly half of the 63 people Marshall’s hired were WorkFirst parents.

The businesses we recognize today have helped write success stories that make us proud. Like the story of a young WorkFirst mother with 6 children who quit school at a young age and had little employment history. But Holland America saw potential and hired her. The woman has since been promoted and is supporting her family.

Or the story of two WorkFirst graduates hired by Washington Mutual as tellers. One of the tellers is now an Operations Supervisor, the other has advanced to Branch Management Training.

Then there’s the story of Sergey Datskiy. He came to America as a refugee from the Ukraine with his wife and eight children. He worked hard, earning up to $11 per hour. But with such a large family, that just wasn’t enough for him to leave assistance. Then he completed a pipe welding program at Bellingham Technical College. Dakota Creek Industries hired Sergey and he now earns $18.25 an hour. He was recently able to buy a home.

WorkFirst is an outstanding example of the partnership approach at its best. The program brings business, government, education and people in need together. Everyone wins!

Parents win by getting off welfare and getting on with their lives. They win by becoming more self-reliant.

Businesses win by gaining valued employees and helping people who deserve an opportunity. They win by saving on recruitment, training and hiring costs.

Children win by learning a work ethic from the people who matter most to them—their parents.

Communities win by gaining a vibrant local economy and more local tax revenue for police, fire and schools.

And government wins with reductions in welfare costs. Costs go down, employment goes up. That’s definitely a winning combination!

Instead of perpetuating the poverty cycle, we are breaking it. Instead of encouraging people to stay on welfare, we’re helping people escape welfare to become contributors to our economy.

WorkFirst embodies values that we all agree are worthwhile. It is based on personal responsibility. Participants take responsibility for their own future. They take responsibility for supporting their families. They take the initiative to make a positive change to better themselves—and to better contribute to the world around them.

WorkFirst is based on opportunity. It reflects our conviction that people are willing to work hard if they are given an opportunity. This program shows people the way to the American Dream—the dream that if you work hard and apply yourself, you can have a better life. Everyone deserves the opportunity to pursue that dream.

WorkFirst also reflects the importance of human dignity. Participants discover that they can make it on their own. They can take care of their families. They can have a career and a better life. They learn that they can be self-reliant and self-sufficient. This gives them something else—a much stronger sense of self worth. A sense of dignity.

The program is rooted in a strong, simple work ethic. Participants learn that they can get a job, keep a job, get a better job and build a better life. WorkFirst teaches the rewards of diligence, persistence and commitment.

In the meantime, they are showing their children what hard work can accomplish. The work ethic is passed on.

For most of us, life has given opportunities and the chance to be free of want. WorkFirst gives us a chance to pass our good fortune on by helping others help themselves.

Today we celebrate the power of opportunity and the power of helping people better their lives.

To the many businesses, agencies, educational and training institutions that make WorkFirst a successful effort, my heartfelt thanks. Keep up the good work!

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