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Former Welfare Recipients Flood State Job Markets
By Maridith Geuder
MSU University Relations
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- In a new study exploring the state's future employment opportunities for people leaving welfare, a Mississippi State research scientist finds good and not-so-good news.
Frank Howell, a professor in Mississippi State University's Social Science Research Center, reports a promising picture in some parts of Mississippi. In other areas, he predicts a shortage of jobs matching the skill and educational levels of those in the labor market.
Howell's recently published study, "Prospects for Job- Matching in the Welfare-to-Work Transition," was supported by the state Department of Human Services through Millsaps College's Center for Applied Research. It was published by the Jackson school and the MSU-based Southern Rural Development Center.
In his lengthy investigation, Howell analyzes the ability of local job markets to absorb individuals receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal program established in 1996 to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The new program sets a maximum 60 months of assistance, with the expectation of employment afterwards.
Mississippi faces unique challenges in the welfare-to-work transition because almost one-fourth of its residents live in poverty, according to U.S. Census figures. To assess the state's ability to employ those leaving welfare, Howell considered the:
- educational credentials of welfare recipients during a 12-month period,
- projected employment opportunities based on occupational groupings with different educational requirements, and
- availability of childcare facilities and access to a household automobile in specific labor market areas across the state, among other factors.
Howell said some unexpected results underscore the need for such studies. For instance, Hinds County and the capital area were found to have the largest welfare caseload and largest decline.
"The rapid decline in TANF caseloads in the Hinds labor market area during the period roughly corresponding to the 1996 legislation was double that of the next closest area, Greenville," he said.
Howell said the Hinds labor market dropped about 28,000 cases -- from more than 40,000 to about 12,000 -- from October 1991 to October 1998. By contrast, Greenville and Clarksdale labor market areas dropped from just over 21,000 in 1991 to about 7,500 cases by 1998.
"Contrary to public perception, the largest number of TANF recipients and those leaving the welfare rolls were not in the Mississippi Delta region," Howell said. He also found several labor markets with relatively small numbers of TANF recipients, including Corinth and Tupelo in the northeastern part of the state.
In other unexpected findings, he discovered a surprising number of welfare recipients with post-high school education and college degrees. Among the 1996 TANF recipients, the percentages by labor market with more than a high school education ranged from a high of 19 percent in the Vicksburg labor market to a low of 7 percent in the Tupelo labor market.
"Even with a baccalaureate degree, if you're a single mother of one or more children, the tradeoffs between child care, transportation and the labor market can be challenging," he said.
Based on his study, Howell predicts that northern and extreme southern Mississippi should have adequate numbers of jobs for those leaving welfare.
"It appears that the labor markets in Tupelo and the Memphis area, as well as Hattiesburg and the Gulf Coast will be able to accommodate most of those projected to leave welfare with a work- requirement set by the Department of Human Services," he said.
Central Mississippi is predicted to face more challenges, with job deficits in some areas. The lesson for all communities: Take an active role to have a successful transition.
"We can look at what TANF recipients have to offer and realize that it benefits the community to help make the transition work," Howell said. "Public policy that addresses issues such as transportation and day-care limitations can make a difference."
This report is available from the Southern Rural Development Center by calling (662) 325-3207. An online version is available from the Joint Center for Poverty Research in Chicago at www.jcpr.org.
Contact: Dr. Frank Howell, (662) 325-2014