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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Conference Provides Progress Report on Welfare Reform in Southern New Mexico

LAS CRUCES - New Mexico's long-term success in moving welfare recipients into the workforce hinges on investments in education and training to raise wages, state Secretary of Labor Clinton Harden said at a southern New Mexico welfare reform conference Thursday.

"We have to make work pay," he told an audience of 150, many of whom are directly involved in welfare reform programs. "We need short-term, targeted education and training programs to help individuals raise their earnings."

The national average wage of "welfare leavers" is $6.61 per hour or $13,748 per year, Harden said. "That's just above the poverty level for a family of three."

New Mexico employers are unlikely to pay high wages until workers have the skill levels and educational requirements appropriate for high-paying jobs, he said. He encouraged stronger partnerships among welfare and labor programs and community colleges.

Harden's department oversees programs for hard-to-place welfare recipients who have substance abuse problems, language barriers or other issues that hinder them from finding and keeping jobs.

Robin Dozier Otten, deputy secretary for the state Human Services department, which oversees the New Mexico Works program study for the department showed average earnings of $2,750 per quarter for those moving into the workforce. Sixty-two percent of those who leave welfare permanently have found jobs with wages that make them ineligible for welfare benefits, she said.

Department statistics released last month showed a 6 percent decline in the state's welfare caseload from December 1999 to April 2000, with those in rural areas leaving welfare at a higher rate than those in urban areas.

New Mexico welfare recipients face a five-year limit on cash benefits, Dozier Otten said. Of the 23,210 participants in the department's current caseload, 2,846 will reach their benefits limit in July 2002, she said. A sizable number of those people-466-live in Doņa Ana County, she added.

Dozier Otten praised the efforts of those at the conference, saying she is seeing "success story after success story" through New Mexico Works, which provides training, education, job placement and assistance for participants moving from welfare to work.

In the southwest quadrant of New Mexico, the program is administered by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, which subcontracts with Western New Mexico University and Eastern New Mexico University to serve nine counties: Catron, Doņa Ana, Grant, Hidalgo, Lincoln, Luna, Otero, Sierra and Socorro.

The southwest region leads the state in percentage of participants employed and number of jobs developed through New Mexico Works. NMSU's program had served 7,094 participants through May 31, with 2,901 placed in paid employment, said Ron Gurley, who is stepping down as executive director at the end of the month. The placement rate was 181 percent of the program's goal of 1,131 participants employed, he said.

A total of 3,952 job openings in southwestern New Mexico have been lined up for those leaving welfare through New Mexico Works, Gurley said. An overwhelming majority of participants -93.4 percent-are taking part in required training and job search activities, Gurley said.