Wisconsin Welfare Success Eludes Hmong, Study Shows


MADISON - Pa Vang, an intern at the Institute for Wisconsin's Future, a Milwaukee policy research center, interviewed 137 Hmong immigrant families for a study of how the displaced Southeast Asian tribespeople are faring under Wisconsin's heralded welfare reform program, W-2. One participant, a woman with eight children under the age of 15, stuck in Vang's mind.

"When I asked her how she was doing under W-2," says Vang, "she cried. She said how hard it was."

The woman, whose husband is on disability, knows little English and has no job skills. She was placed in a community service job, folding towels. She says her grant and her husband's disability covers the food bill and rent, but that there's no money left over to buy clothes. And she is worried that she may soon lose eligibility under W-2, which imposes a two-year time limit on benefits.

"She doesn't know how she can support her family by folding towels. "The future is so uncertain. She worries about her kids getting enough to eat." says Vang, who is herself a Hmong.

The Institute's recently released study, found that most Hmong immigrants in W-2 have not acquired the job skills, basic education or language ability needed to obtain employment.

"The study is consistent with other research on W-2 which shows a gap between W-2's potential on paper and the W-2 that exists in reality," says Vicki Selkowe, co-author of the study. "There is a tremendous urgency to these findings because many Hmong W-2 participants will soon hit W-2's two-year cut-off in their benefits but have not gained the skills they need to sustain employment."

The study, and a subsequent report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has prompted a federal inquiry into whether the civil rights of Hmong participants in W-2 are being violated because the state has failed to provide interpreters for them. Wisconsin could lose federal welfare funds if found guilty of civil rights violations regarding Hmong W-2 recipients.

There are about 50,000 Hmong in Wisconsin, according to Ying Lee, executive director of United Refugee Services of Wisconsin. Many of these immigrants were forced to flee their homeland because they had supported the United States during the Vietnam War. Most were resettled in Wisconsin, Minnesota or California.

Among the findings of "The Impact of Welfare Reform on Wisconsin's Hmong Aid Recipients," based on interviews with about half of all Hmong participants who remained on W-2 at the time of the study:

  • More than 90% read little or no English;
  • Seventy percent couldn't communicate with their caseworkers;
  • Sixty percent have no formal education;
  • Nearly 95 percent have no job skills in any of the targeted employment areas of W-2;
  • Less than 10% were engaged in any skills training or basic education classes;
  • Nine of 10 were placed in subsidized employment; most were assigned to light assembly or cleaning activities involving little or no skill development.

Reflects Selkowe: "If you can't read or write English and the only job preparation you've had through W-2 is make-work assignments, your chances of coping in the marketplace are not very good."

Another factor making W-2 especially hard on the Hmong, says Selkowe, is that they traditionally have large families and W-2, unlike Aid to Families with Dependent Children, pays all families a maximum monthly benefit of $673 regardless of the number of children in the household. This has meant an average drop of about $100 per month per household which has had a severe impact on the families interviewed: one-third reported that they had run out of food in the last three months; 89 percent said they didn't have enough money to buy clothing.

Plus, language barriers often prevent these participants from accessing available services because they have trouble communicating with welfare workers and can't read program documents.

"These families don't have Hmong-speaking caseworkers," says Selkowe. "Many have to rely on friends and family to translate. It can lead to a great deal of frustration."

This probably explains what Selkowe calls the "disturbingly high" W-2 drop-out rate for Hmong families: Of the 1200 families enrolled in the program when it debuted in September 1997, only 300 remained in December 1998, when the study was conducted.

And as of November 1999, that number had dropped to 140 Hmong families, reports Shawn Smith of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Smith, unlike Selkowe, applauds the steep decline in Hmong participation in W-2. "We think that it is attributable to the success of W-2 in placing these families in employment," she says.

Smith cites an array of services and outreach efforts aimed at Hmong participants in W-2, including an English-as-a-Second language program in the Oshkosh area as well as an ESL program at the Job Center in Dane County.

The independent study recommends a number of changes to W-2 to make sure the program meets the needs of Wisconsin's Hmong families, including: extending the time limits on benefits, increasing cash grant levels for larger families, expanding educational and technical training opportunities, and including English language assistance in their W-2 activities.

Selkowe says the Institute decided to study how the Hmong are doing under W-2 because they are indicative of the hard-to-serve population that remain on the welfare rolls.

The study's findings, she says, raises the question of "what are we going to do with the families who can't work or who have significant barriers to holding down a job?"

So far, Wisconsin has granted six-month extensions to participants who have appealed their cut-off date, says Selkowe, but that won't be enough for Wisconsin's Hmong participants: "If you have the barriers these families have, six months isn't going to be enough."

For more information on the Hmong, click on Hmong Homepage.


Related Stories