June 3, 1998

One day, Rhonda Costa's daughter came home from school and announced, "Mommy, I'm tired of seeing you sitting around the house doing nothing." That's the day Rhonda decided to get off welfare.

Today, Rhonda is an administrative assistant at Salomon Smith Barney, a New York financial services firm. After a year and a half on the job, she earns $29,000 a year with full benefits and stock options.

Felicia Booker, who is blind, needed public assistance after the birth of her first child, but she got "tired of sitting around the house and tired of not having enough money." She enrolled in a six-week training program that led to a position at a computer programming company. Now, she works for A.G. Edwards in St. Louis, Mo., earning $46,000 a year.

Tonya Oden was caring for her three children with the help of public assistance when she heard about a training program at Cessna Aircraft Co.'s 21st Street Subassembly Facility in Wichita, Kan. She enrolled and was the first trainee to become an inspector at the facility, where she now earns $12 an hour.

The stories of these women tell us that welfare reform is working -- that with opportunities and support, people can move successfully from welfare to work. But, on closer inspection, they tell us much more. Welfare reform has not only been good for individuals and their families, it has also been good for American businesses.

Companies from the Fortune 500 to the smallest firm have been surprised to find that there is less turnover -- and therefore less cost for rehiring and retraining -- among the employees they've hired off the welfare rolls.

At United Airlines, a peer-mentoring program, along with on-the-job training and generous benefits, has contributed to a retention rate among welfare employees double that of non-welfare hires. United was so pleased with the success of its mentoring program that it was extended to all new workers this year.

Hygienic Service Systems, a small company in Red Wing, Minn., works closely with the local Department of Social Services, which screens and refers potential employees. Seventy percent stay on the job at least a year, compared with 40 percent of non-welfare workers.

At Salomon Smith Barney, the retention rate of 92 percent beats the 81 percent average for non-welfare hires in similar positions. The company has realized significant savings on expenditures for recruitment, hiring and temporary help.

Salomon Smith Barney also works with an agency to help identify and train welfare recipients for jobs. Candidates participate in a 16-week training program followed by a 16-week paid internship that combines on-the-job experience with specific skills.

United Airlines, Hygienic Service Systems and Salomon Smith Barney are all members of the Welfare to Work Partnership. A non-profit group, the Partnership was launched one year ago after the President called on American business to help move people off the welfare rolls and into jobs. There are now 5,000 participating businesses -- up from 105 when the group was formed. Last year alone, member companies hired 135,000 former welfare recipients. And now, the President has challenged Welfare to Work participants to double their welfare hires this year.

According to the Partnership's CEO and President, Eli Segal, there are several reasons that participating companies have been so successful. All provide mentoring or some kind of on-site job coaching. They don't try to recruit, hire and train by themselves. They work with government or non-profit organizations to get the help they need. They offer attractive benefit packages. And they don't compromise their standards. They require and expect those coming off the welfare rolls to perform as well as any other entry-level employee.

Since my husband took office, the welfare rolls have declined by 37 percent -- from 14.1 million to 8.9 million -- and each day, people who used to rely on the government for support begin to stand on their own two feet. But our job is not done.

Some communities need additional help as people make the transition from welfare to work. Last year's balanced budget agreement provides $3 billion in welfare-to-work grants to help the hardest-to-place candidates.

The President's child-care initiative would provide much-needed help for working parents, and he has proposed the funding of vouchers for those who need housing assistance to get or keep their jobs. And we need to find even more private-sector jobs.

But let's not forget the success stories. Let's thank the Partnership for all it has accomplished already. And let's give credit to the people who've done the really hard work -- and who've got the most to show for it -- people like Rhonda Costa. At the White House last week, as her two daughters beamed with pride, Rhonda summed up her experience when she said, "It feels good to be needed."