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Welfare Budget Supports Fewer Recipients, More Services

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ZEBULON — Since June of 1995, the number of families dependent on welfare in North Carolina has been cut in half, but the state's welfare budget has not dropped. Many wonder why.

Work First, North Carolina's welfare reform program, is now in its fourth year. More than half of the people who have graduated from the program are still employed and eight of ten are making more money than they received on welfare. The program's success has left many wondering why the state's welfare budget has not been cut.

State representatives say that while the welfare budget remains at a half-billion dollars, they are able to stretch that money a lot further. The state has redirected the savings to pay for things like child care and substance abuse counselors.

It has been two years since Cheryl Hodge left welfare through the Work First program. Today, she makes more than $30,000 a year as an administrative assistant.

Now that she is off public assistance, Hodge saves the state thousands of dollars. "We're spending the money on a lot more things that will help working families in North Carolina," says Peter Leousis, of theDepartment of Health and Human Services. "It's not restricted to just welfare families."

But when it comes to salary, Hodge is an exception. A new state study shows most former Work First participants do not earn half of what Hodge does, and they still require public assistance.

David Gerlach runs a research group in Raleigh that examines poverty issues. "Rather than being the non-working poor, they've joined the ranks of the working poor," Gerlach says of program graduates.

To get more people in jobs like Hodge's, Work First is experimenting with a new approach called the call back program.

"At about six months, you start calling to see whether or not they'd be interested in going to say a night class at the community college to work on some of their job skills," Leousis says. Right now the call back program is in just six counties. Work First hopes to expand it statewide soon.