COLUMBIA - South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has often pointed to the success of a program designed to put those receiving welfare into jobs.

The argument and the numbers are powerful: More than 20,000 former welfare recipients have been placed into jobs since she took office. Once they get a job, most stay off the welfare rolls for at least three months and often much longer, according to Department of Social Services.

In a campaign advertisement rolled out last week called "Paychecks," Haley again touted the program. "I fundamentally believe people want paychecks, not welfare checks," she said in the ad.

But advocates for the poor and a former DSS deputy director who oversaw the program said that of those 20,000 former welfare recipients, it is difficult to know how many stayed in their jobs or were able to get employment beyond a limited-hour minimum wage job.

For those who receive supplemental food assistance, called SNAP, the department counts any minimum wage job toward the administration's total regardless of how many hours a person worked, according to a March 2014 memo obtained by The Post and Courier.

Those gains, they say, cloud the real picture of poverty in South Carolina under Haley's watch.

Sue Berkowitz, executive director of Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which advocates for the poor, said the welfare-to-work program's high numbers may have little meaning long term for the families it aims to help.

"It's more of a PR campaign than looking at how to really improve the lives of families and children," Berkowitz said. "We need to be realistic. Are we really putting folks in jobs to help them get out of poverty? That's just not happening."

Doug Mayer, the governor's spokesman, said the welfare-to-work program is about the dignity of work. "Governor Haley has always believed that the best way to take care of our South Carolina families is to provide more and better opportunities for them to find work in our state - and that is exactly what the welfare to work program has done," Mayer said in a statement. "Getting someone a job and off the false safety net of government assistance isn't just about a steady paycheck, it's about the dignity and self-esteem that comes with it and the long-term benefits that brings to a person's life."

Numbers vs. results

Poverty is a complex problem that will never have a silver bullet. But advocates said the administration's desire to push people off the welfare rolls and into low-paying, minimum wage jobs won't solve any of the state's long-term poverty issues. While the practice may help the state's bottom line, its focus is on numbers more than results, they said.

Still, many stay off of welfare, according to numbers provided by DSS. After one year, 83 percent of those who found work through the program weren't on welfare rolls, and 78 percent stayed off state assistance for at least two years.

Advocates for the poor say that the Haley administration should pay more attention to numbers that show poverty is on the rise in the Palmetto State. They pointed to two commonly cited poverty measures: those who receive dollars for food and those who qualify for health care coverage under Medicaid. The number of people who received supplemental food assistance, or SNAP, went up by about 6,000 people from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2013. Over the same time period, around 41,000 people were added to Medicaid rolls, state and federal figures show.

In Charleston, welfare recipients are linked up with opportunities to work at McDonald's, Goodwill or in health care, among others, according to a approved list of DSS partners.

Linda Martin, former deputy director of DSS who oversaw the program until last year, said the state has not invested in other programs that could affect lasting change.

Those who qualify for welfare earn little to nothing, and the state's monthly payout isn't meant to break the cycle of poverty, she said. For example, a welfare recipient with a family of three cannot earn more than $813 per month, and the state's payout is $274 per month. Most who seek welfare sign up because they want other state services beyond welfare to help hold down a job, including transportation and child care, Martin said.

But after the first year, she said, the state does not do enough to help those who may have started a minimum wage job but need a leg up for it to make a significant difference.

"Once you get a job, we can count it as a score and that's that," said Martin, who worked at DSS for 36 years until late last year. "I think we could do far more in trying to provide support to help people keep their jobs."

Martin was fired last year in part, she said, because she raised concerns to the agency's former director, Lillian Koller, who has resigned amid a Senate investigation into cases where children under the department's care have died or been injured.

She said in Koller's first year, the staff was able to meet many of the numerical targets for putting people to work. But then Koller began privatizing that function of the department, called Jobs Upfront Mean More Pay (JUMMP).

The multimillion-dollar contracts to private companies to handle the work demoralized department case workers who thought they had done a good job, Martin said.

Despite requests, a DSS spokeswoman did not provide information about the contracts.

The long-brewing controversy around DSS had some Democrats scratching their heads as to why Haley would invite further scrutiny of DSS's work, in this case the welfare-to-work program.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, who serves on the Senate panel investigating DSS, said he was surprised the Haley administration was touting a DSS program.

"I'm shocked she'd even want to mention the state DSS in any advertisement because in my opinion it has been her biggest mismanagement," Lourie said. "Clearly, I think this is another example of the governor playing hard and loose with the facts, but that has been her style throughout her career."

Other Republicans on the committee - Sens. Tom Young from Aiken and Katrina Shealy from Lexington - said they have been charged with investigating DSS's protective services division, and they did not know enough about the welfare program to comment.

Numbers at DSS

A March 2014 DSS newsletter obtained by The Post and Courier shows the department's thinking. It said that employees should be focused on doing their work well and the department would meet its target numbers, called "Wildly Important Goals."

"Ultimately, this is about achieving the outcomes we want by doing the right work the right way," the newsletter said. "If you continue to do what you've already done so well ... the numbers will come."

Marilyn Matheus, a DSS spokeswoman, confirmed the memo's accuracy. The same memo said that if the department links a person on SNAP or food assistance, it counts as a job regardless of how many hours the person works. "The Department of Social Services is dedicated to making South Carolina a better place to live and one of the ways we do this is by helping people find jobs," Matheus said in an email.

Many on the ground with some of South Carolina's neediest say fewer dollars for follow-up services have weakened the chances of people getting out of poverty.

Child care for employed parents is a huge cost that the state and non-profits generally have difficulty covering, said Walter Simmons, who manages Prosperity Centers, a non-profit partnership in Dorchester and Berkeley counties that seeks to find resources for the poor.

For someone with little education and children to care for, the hurdles can be high: the cost of transportation to and from workforce development programs and child care can quickly eat up a minimum wage paycheck.

Simmons said he sees DSS case managers and non-profit leaders working hard to try and fill the need, but with few state resources dedicated to helping people not just get a job but stay out of poverty, it's a difficult proposition.

"We're putting people back in that circle of poverty, that same continuous circle," Simmons said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.