Helping Pennsylvania's Families to Succeed

Poverty is a serious problem in Pennsylvania. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that 12.9 percent of our citizens live below the poverty level. For children, the numbers get worse. Almost 20 percent of children under age 18 and 22.7 percent under age 5 live below the poverty level.
Pennie Dade, child care provider, Erie County.

Pennie Dade, child care provider, Erie County.

"Penn State's 'Child Care and You' program taught me what I needed to know to start my own child care business. I'll definitely go to future programs to keep up with what's going on in the field."

Welfare reform policy has substantially changed the dynamics of how people cope with poverty. Programs that educate, inform and empower families and communities are taking on unprecedented importance. In Pennsylvania, Penn State Cooperative Extension provides educational programs that enhance the capacity of service agencies to help assistance clients gain and retain employment. Job preparedness and interviewing skills, how to select quality child care, and managing money are essential to success in the workforce. Programs on financial management are crucial for a broad cross-section of the population as well. These programs cover consumer rights and responsibilities, money management for both adults and children, gaining control of the family/household financial situation, and dealing with stresses in daily living.

The Payoff

Life skills training

The new welfare system focuses on getting people into the workforce, but success requires more than just job skills. Because people with positive self-images are more motivated to improve their economic status, extension collaborates with public assistance agencies to help clients learn employment-related coping skills and examine their self-beliefs. In Northumberland County, 95 percent of the clients who attended "My Key to Success" programs became and remained employed. Eight months later, participants had assumed more control in their lives, were either still employed or seeking work, and perceived their lives with a positive perspective.

Train-the-trainer programs

To reach more people, extension agents teach caseworkers basic life skills such as nutrition and stress management, family communication, financial management, home maintenance and safety. In turn, these professionals -- from organizations such as Head Start, the Salvation Army, the Big Brother/Big Sister Program, homeless shelters, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers -- help improve the financial and life management practices of the unemployed and working poor. After the "Life Skills Education Program," caseworkers said they felt more effective in their work, welfare-to-work mothers were better able to hold down jobs and manage day-to-day activities, and probation clients had increased self-esteem and more confidently took charge of their lives.

Child care training

Because an extreme need exists for child care, Penn State Cooperative Extension trains assistance clients interested in becoming child care providers. "Child Care and You" teaches clients how to start a child care business in their home or work for other providers and enhances their job search skills. In just one year, 60 cash assistance clients in Erie County took the class. Of those, 54 later became employed, 13 in child care related jobs. Another program, "Better Kid Care," aimed at improving the quality, availability and accessibility of child care, reaches child care providers and parents through satellite conferences, workshops, the media and toll-free telephone help lines. Each year, the program provides more than 195,000 hours of training in Pennsylvania to child care providers and parents. Satellite conferences are now downlinked in 45 states.

Managing resources

The next step after getting a job is managing financial resources. Cooperative extension trains caseworkers to better counsel low-income clients on money management. Because it's hard to get good, objective information on investing, agents also teach clients the basics they need to make investments. A mutual funds program goes one step further and covers the language of investing, how to read a prospectus and newspaper financial pages, and how to match financial goals to different options. In Westmoreland County, 4-H volunteers formed a youth investment club. Through this experience, teens learn how the stock market works and the value of saving.

Life skills for urban, at-risk youth. In Erie, cooperative extension has collaborated with the Edison Elementary School for eight years through after-school clubs, parent education and classroom use of 4-H programs. Of Edison's 560 students, at least 90 percent live at the poverty level or qualify for reduced or free lunches, many live in government-subsidized housing, and 54 percent belong to a racial minority. Students in the "Kids in Control" program at Edison learn the safety and life skills they need to take care of themselves and make better use of their free time. In 1997, 95 percent of the participants' parents surveyed felt their child was better able to care for him or herself while home alone. One hundred percent felt the programs should be offered to future third graders.

Preparing quality applicants. People serious about succeeding in today's workforce need "soft skills," such as computer literacy and communication, as well as specific job training. In a seven-county area, Penn State Cooperative Extension and Continuing and Distance Education formed a consortium with area manufacturers, Pennsylvania Job Centers, Venango Area V-Tech, the Clarion-Venango Education Resource Alliance and the Venango Economic Development Corporation to offer competitive, pre-employment training. The training includes safety and health, computer literacy, personal development, teamwork, technology, communications, math and manufacturing plant tours. Since the program's beginning in 1998, 27 people have graduated. Of the first class, 13 out of 13 students were employed by the participating manufacturers.

The College of Agricultural Sciences life skills and workforce preparation programs are collaborative initiatives developed by the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education and Penn State Cooperative Extension. For more information, contact Dr. Blannie Bowen at (814) 863-7850.