Doling for dollars

The Cold War over, defense giant Lockheed Martin mines another government program for profit -- the war on poverty

The classroom signs promote happy thoughts, visions of love and work and well-being. "Wanted," one poster says. "Someone to love me for me."

The teacher, Wanda Evans, a middle-aged Lockheed Martin worker, has even tacked up one of her own messages: "A lot of good things will come out of this class because a lot of good people come in."

At 8:30 in the morning on the first day of class, though, the students--22 welfare recipients who've been told to get a job or lose part of their benefits--seem convinced of little except their need to be here.

Thanks to state welfare reforms, they've got six days to learn how to find a job and keep it with the help of instructors and case managers from Lockheed Martin, the huge private corporation chosen to run Dallas County's welfare-reform program.

That assignment is daunting for people who've been out of work for months or years, and the threat of consequences always looms before them.

But Ms. Evans, a slender woman dressed in professional garb, radiates confidence. A former Dallas Independent School District teacher, she quickly memorizes everyone's first name and strides purposefully around the white-walled classroom, trying to draw each student out.

"If your self-esteem was down, how would you handle it?" she asks her class.

A heavyset woman bellows her answer from the back: "Pray!"
Everyone laughs. Ms. Evans chuckles the loudest, seizing the opportunity for humor.

She then turns to Electra Taylor, a quiet woman seated on the opposite side of the room. "What do you do, Electra?" she asks.

The shy student murmurs an answer.
"Thank you, Electra," Ms. Evans says in her soothing voice. "She said she would do something positive to make herself feel better."

By the end of the five-hour session, through prodding, cajoling, and careful listening, Ms. Evans has made some small steps toward the day's two objectives: Building her students' self-esteem and improving their communication skills.

Gainful employment still seems a long way off. But the clock is ticking, and most of the students are determined to get work, and the state says they will.

So they will.

Welfare these days, as just about everyone knows, isn't what it used to be. Both the federal and state governments have put in place massive changes aimed at pushing people off the dole and into the work force.

Under the landmark welfare reform laws signed in 1996 by President Clinton, the U.S. government set a five-year lifetime limit on welfare aid and gave states permission to set even tougher standards.

The new rules allowed states to start experimenting with novel ways to administer the dole. As a result, Texas lawmakers established the Dallas County Development Board and 17 similar agencies across the state to manage welfare at the local level.

These agencies are free to choose outside contractors to administer welfare reforms in their area, and the Dallas board picked Lockheed Martin, a $28 billion multinational corporation better known for building fighter planes. Since the Cold War ended, Lockheed Martin has increasingly sought a new type of government contract--providing social services.

In June 1997, the Dallas board agreed to pay Lockheed Martin more than $5.7 million for a 15-month contract to get people off the dole beginning in June 1997.

Ms. Evans is one of 20 Lockheed Martin teachers in Dallas County charged with the task of transforming classrooms of welfare and food-stamp recipients into gainfully employed members of society.

In six days, Ms. Evans' students--who, in April, included an ex-con, a man who couldn't read, and a dozen single mothers--are supposed to reach an invisible threshold known as "work-ready." They're taught to write a resume, dress appropriately, and survive a job interview. Along the way, Ms. Evans gives numerous small nudges to their self-esteem.

If they stay the course, they're turned loose on a local economy ravenous for workers. Lockheed Martin case managers point students in the direction of "help wanted" signs. They apply for jobs, fulfilling a requirement for a certain number of personal contacts per week.

Some do get jobs--including most of those in Ms. Evans' April class. When students do get work, Lockheed Martin puts a tick in its book and reports success--another person off the dole.

The state adjusts its statistics. And a miracle is pronounced. A six-day miracle.

From a look at the raw numbers, Lockheed Martin is enjoying some success in Dallas County. It seems to have made the rather unlikely transition from government contractor to miracle worker.

People are getting jobs. In January, Lockheed Martin reported that it helped find work for 2,759 Dallas County residents who'd been getting government aid--including 14 percent of the area's welfare recipients. How long are they keeping those jobs? No one really knows, because our state Legislature hasn't deemed it necessary to track the long-term effects of Texas' welfare-reform program.

That has led to criticism that programs such as Lockheed Martin's merely skim off the small percentage of men and women who were ready to work anyway--people who temporarily needed government aid but have held jobs before.

What's left untouched, critics say, are the hardcore cases--lifelong welfare recipients, people who, in some cases, have never bought into the values of the working world.

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