COLUMBIA -- The director of South Carolina's social services agency expects to double the number of welfare recipients who trade a government check for a paycheck.
Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller said Wednesday she wants her staff to help 10,120 families by June 30 find jobs that take them off welfare rolls. That's up from 5,060 cases closed between September 2009 and June 2010 because their incomes increased.
It's a bold goal for a state with the nation's fourth-highest unemployment rate, at 11.1 percent in August. But Koller insisted that it's doable in what she calls commonsense baby steps.
Each of 150 case managers statewide must ensure that five clients a week apply for a job, and that one person has an employment interview.
"Although they seem like an insignificant effort, it's a lot more than is being done," Koller said.
It forces employees to see their cases as families and evaluate their skills, rather than just feel overwhelmed by their exploding number of caseloads in a bad economy, she said.
In 2007-08, welfare cases averaged less than 14,700 a month. That skyrocketed to an average of more than 20,300 in 2010-11, according to DSS reports.
"If you want to keep focusing on all that, you'll get exactly what we've got. Let's focus on what we can do. Look at your triple case load and find just one person, one mom or dad to send to an interview that week," Koller said.
"That's how you tackle a big problem. Otherwise, you get overwhelmed before you even get started."
As a third "baby step," each of the state's 32 job developers must find at least one unadvertised job per week -- some must find two or three depending on the county.
They can do that by contacting employers and telling them of the support the agency's clients temporarily get in child care and transportation stipends should they hire them. That's support other entry-level applicants won't have, Koller said.
An advocate for the poor said she appreciates Koller's optimism, but the goal is not realistic.
"If it were that simple, why do we have 11 percent unemployment?" said Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. "It's great to tell people to look for a job, but if there are no jobs out there ... what do we tell them then?"
In July, 18,712 South Carolina families were receiving welfare checks. The maximum a family can receive in South Carolina is $270 a month, while the average is $160.
To qualify, the family must fall below 50 percent of the federal poverty level. That means a mom with two children, for example, must make less than $764 a month.
By law, families can receive that money for up to 24 months over 10 years, or five years total over a lifetime.
Helping children escape the cycle of poverty requires helping their parents find a job, or a better one with more hours, Koller said.
Koller said her WIG -- for Wildly Important Goal -- focuses on the more than 8,000 families without infants, disabled children or elderly parents at home, where the mom or dad is deemed able to work.
She pointed to a chart from March showing that for about half of those families, case workers logged zero hours of work preparation, which encompasses anything from drafting a resume to training.
Koller said it's the equivalent of giving up and parking a child in poverty.
"I was shocked. Half of them are being completely ignored. That's why we're starting with the baby steps. We're starting with basic things to help our clients find employment," Koller said.
"The only hope these guys have is they're coming to a place where we believe we're the best chance they have to get them to employment. This is a job employment engine. If we don't believe that and don't offer that, they ... are going to give up too."
She said there are no punishments for not meeting the goals, but she is sure that employees are pumped up and ready to give it a try. Each county office has a scoreboard to tally the results through the year.
Berkowitz said she wishes it were that simple. She said she is concerned that overworked and overwhelmed case workers will feel pressured to purge people from the benefit rolls before they should go off.