The program is part of an initiative intended to encourage people to get off welfare and go to work.
By NORMAN LEIGH
VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU
LISBON -- For some of Columbiana County's poor, getting a job is the first obstacle, keeping it is the next.
The county's Department of Job and Family Services aims to help people stay employed by ensuring they have reliable work transportation.
To accomplish that, the federally funded program provides money to fix inoperable or malfunctioning vehicles.
"Awesome," responded Pamela Skinner, program evaluator for job and family services, when asked how well the program is working.
"Our goal is to not just get people a job but to get them self-sufficient," and that includes being able to get to and from work, Skinner said. "We have to get people transportation independent," she added.
"It's cheaper for us in the long run to fix a transmission and get people to work" than to have them jobless and collecting cash assistance, Skinner said.
Necessary: The vehicle-repair program isn't a luxury or an unnecessary government hand-out, Skinner insisted.
For the working poor, "it's not a choice of, 'Do I repair the car or go on vacation?' It's 'Do I repair the car or lose my job and go on assistance?'" Skinner said.
Having reliable work transportation is especially important in rural Columbiana County, which has few public transportation options and where work commutes can be long, Skinner said.
Started in October 1997, the program is growing as more and more people become aware of it.
The program saw no usage in 1997. In 1998, 22 families used it and received a total of $12,408 in repairs. By the end of last year, usage had soared to 136 families' receiving $77,868 in repairs.
Keeping tabs: Skinner noted her agency reserves the right to check on repairs to ensure no fraud is being committed. The agency also has investigators on staff to probe fraud reports, none of which have been received in connection with this program.
Skinner explained the vehicle repair effort is part of a federal initiative stemming from welfare reform.
The federal government has made available funding for a variety of programs intended to provide for the basic needs of many working poor who no longer are receiving cash assistance through traditional welfare.
Besides the vehicle repair program, the county's assistance to qualified individuals includes taxi rides to work, job training and financial aid to meet certain living expenses.
The number of people in the county receiving cash assistance is plummeting as a result of efforts to get people off welfare and on employee rosters.
In July 1997, months before reform was enacted, the county had 1,511 families receiving cash assistance.
This month, there are 87 county families getting it, Skinner said.