JIM LEHRER: Now, paying welfare recipients to move where the jobs are. Spencer Michels reports from central California.
SPENCER MICHELS: Even before the current recession, the agricultural communities in California's vast central valley had some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation-- at least 15%. Towns like Fresno, Visalia, and Tulare, continue to be plagued by poverty, which bad economic times only exacerbate.
Part of the problem is the agricultural economy, where workers with limited skills or education work part of the year and swell the unemployment ranks to 30% or more the rest of the time. The Reverend Walt Perry heads the Fresno metro ministry, which works with and for the poor.
REV. WALT PERRY, Fresno Metro Ministry: Two of the major job sectors in the county are agriculture and services that are low- paying. Many of those jobs are minimum wage, no health benefits, no sick leave, and if people miss very much work they're out of a job.
SPENCER MICHELS: About a third of the people in Fresno and two nearby counties, Kings and Tulare, all north of Los Angeles, get welfare or other public assistance. But what makes these counties different from other poor areas is that here officials have begun offering welfare recipients money so they can move away.
WORKER: Would you like to apply for the job in Florida?
WORKER: Okay. Wonderful.
WORKER: How are we doing?
SPENCER MICHELS: The program began when Lorene Valentino, an educational administrator in Tulare County, realized that while there are few jobs in the central valley, there was plenty of work elsewhere.
LORENE VALENTINO, MOVE Administrator: Here I am sitting here in Visalia, California, thinking, "gee, we have all these people here in Tulare County and they have all the jobs in another location, so wouldn't it be nice if we could just move them?"
SPENCER MICHELS: Valentino says it's an American tradition to move to where the jobs are.
LORENE VALENTINO: My folks came here from Oklahoma during the dust bowl. They thought there was gold on the trees, they were going to come pick the gold off the trees. So people have been moving for, you know, years. It's how we all got here in the first place.
SPENCER MICHELS: Four years ago, Valentino and Tulare County started MOVE -- More Opportunities for Viable Employment. The county offered to pay moving expenses and a little rent, $2,000 or $3,000 total, for welfare recipients who would leave the area. Since 1998, in Tulare County alone, more than 700 have pulled up stakes, out of a total of 9,000 on the welfare rolls. Last July, a St. Petersburg, Florida, resort that couldn't find enough workers nearby, came to Fresno to recruit. The staff at MOVE publicized and facilitated the recruiting and even set up a video touting the good life in Florida.
VIDEO: Palm trees calm me, that's the place I want to be...
SPENCER MICHELS: David Kinney was one of those who applied for a Florida job. He lived in Fresno for ten years, but he was laid off as a mail sorter, and went on welfare. Kinney, along with his wife and three children, planned to take advantage of the MOVE program.
DAVID KINNEY: They'll pay for the truck to move down there, gas, lodging and maybe first month's rent.
SPENCER MICHELS: And you're getting a certain amount of money on welfare now?
DAVID KINNEY: Right.
SPENCER MICHELS: Are you going to make more money, you think?
DAVID KINNEY: Working, yes.
SPENCER MICHELS: They offered you a job, what kind of a job?
DAVID KINNEY: Kitchen helper.
SPENCER MICHELS: After September 11, tourism declined. That, plus the general downturn in the economy, caused the Florida resort to stop its recruiting program. For those reasons, and some personal ones, Kinney decided not to move. Many others did leave.
WOMAN: We need to go ahead and figure what we need for groceries this next week.
SPENCER MICHELS: 55-year-old Julie Laws, who had survived an abusive relationship, was working in a dead-end job as an apartment house manager, earning so little she was on welfare.
JULIE LAWS: I got very used to that check coming in the mail every two weeks. It was really hard to break free from. And I needed to have more income coming in; I needed to be able to set a better example for my daughter.
SPENCER MICHELS: Laws, along with Michanne, the youngest of her seven children, considered the Florida resort, but instead chose a job just 100 miles up the freeway, in Stockton, California, closer to relatives. She became an assistant manager in a large, low-cost apartment complex. MOVE helped them arrange it all.
JULIE LAWS: They were very helpful. They helped us organize the move. We went to a class on what we do from this day until the day we leave. We had enough to get started on. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was more than we had in a lump sum for a while. You know? It was enough to go and buy all the things that you need to buy when you move into a new place.
JULIE LAWS: I've already had you sign some of the paperwork.
SPENCER MICHELS: In her new job, laws earns about $8 an hour, working with residents, and helping run the apartment complex. It has been a dramatic shift for the better in her life. She no longer is on welfare.
JULIE LAWS: It's given us an opportunity to kind of back up and refocus. You know, my daughter is kind of refocusing on what her goals are. And it's easier for us to set goals; we don't have a lot of outside influence.
SPENCER MICHELS: How do you feel about that?
JULIE LAWS: It feels good. Feels really good. I feel... it's a freeing-up thing.
SPENCER MICHELS: MOVE administrators say the program is still going strong, and with welfare reform's five-year lifetime limit on benefits, moving to an area where jobs are available is still appealing. David Crawford is Tulare County manager of the CAL Works program, the state's welfare plan. He says that using money to finance moving expenses is justified under welfare rules.
DAVID CRAWFORD, Tulare Co. Welfare Manager: The federal and state law do allow for payment of supportive services, and we consider relocation expenses to be supportive services.
SPENCER MICHELS: Crawford says it costs $1.2 million a year to administer the MOVE program. But it saves a bit more than that in welfare payments the county doesn't have to make.
DAVID CRAWFORD: There's also the additional benefit of having the family themselves making some efforts to become self-sufficient. And that's what we think is the real reward, not just the monetary value.
SPENCER MICHELS: While local political leaders heartily endorse the plan, Fresno's chief economic advisor and former business school dean, Joseph Penbera, has reservations.
JOSEPH PENBERA, Economist: It makes sense if you want to put a band-aid on a large wound, and you're going to abandon essentially the reasons why they're unemployed. They're unemployed because they lack skills, and the economy's not generating jobs sufficiently to afford them an opportunity.
SPENCER MICHELS: Penbera says the county should focus on job creation and training, and not on exporting the problem.
JOSEPH PENBERA: Really what it does is takes our eye off the ball. It takes our focus away from the region and why we do have the problem.
SPENCER MICHELS: County officials point to numerous job-training programs they and private companies have initiated, and to local efforts to attract industry to the area. Still, those efforts have fallen short. This manufacturing firm attracted to the area a few years ago by cheap plentiful labor closed down two plants and laid off 800 workers. Reverend Perry agrees on the need to create a stronger economy with better jobs. But he also thinks the MOVE program sends the wrong message.
REV. WALT PERRY, Fresno Metro Ministry: It tells people, "you do not belong here, there is no place for you, go someplace else," and that can take on racist tones. It can take on the tones "we don't want low income people here, go away."
SPENCER MICHELS: Such criticism disturbs Lorene Valentino, the MOVE administrator, who says everybody wins.
LORENE VALENTINO: The participant certainly wins, because they move to a new location, they start a new life, they're making money. And the taxpayer wins. We've saved millions of dollars for this county.
WORKER: Address, telephone number, how you heard about us today.
SPENCER MICHELS: As employment supervisor of MOVE, Karen Davidson has tracked MOVE participants for the past nine months. She says about 90% of the more than 700 people who have moved so far have found jobs and stayed.
KAREN DAVIDSON, MOVE Employment Supervisor: If they get somewhere and the job doesn't work out for whatever reason, either they're fired or they quit, they don't like it, there are so many other opportunities that are available to them. We don't prohibit anybody from coming back. We cannot pay for them to come back; they have to do that on their own.
SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the controversy over moving poor people away, the MOVE program was recently expanded to an adjacent county, and national publicity has sparked interest elsewhere in the country.