This Is Our House: How the Caroline Center Tackles Job Readiness

Drive a few blocks due east of the state penitentiary in downtown Baltimore and you will cross the 900 block of Somerset Street. There you will find the “Caroline Center: A Learning/Career Center for Women of East Baltimore.”1 This is not a salubrious part of town. Nonetheless, the center concentrates on providing intensive, values-based training to welfare-dependent women, its mission being to ease them into the world of regular employment and self-sufficiency. Given the federal government’s poor track record on job training, and given its partial withdrawal from the front lines of welfare provision, the center may well represent a model that will become increasingly common over the next few years.

The Caroline Center is named after Mother Caroline Friess, who in 1847 brought the School Sisters of Notre Dame order of nuns to America from Germany, where it had been founded 13 years previously.2 The center is housed in an imposing building built in 1908, formerly the order’s novitiate (i.e., lodging for trainee nuns or “novices”). The center abuts the Institute of Notre Dame, a local private high school. The order also runs a prep school in Towson and the locally well known college in Baltimore.

Though the Caroline Center was opened only recently – October 14, 1996 – its roots go back a couple of years. A number of SSND sisters decided that the old and by now unused novitiate was going to waste. The conducted their own neighborhood needs assessment and came to the conclusion that job training was the way in which they could be most useful. The order’s leadership agreed, and Notre Dame College President Kathleen Feeley got to work using her considerable local clout to get the project off the ground.

Over the next year or two, funding was raised – $400,000 from the state, $200,000 from the city, $150,000 from the SSND order itself and a considerable amount from foundations and Baltimore-area businesses. Under last summer’s congressional welfare reform legislation, the center is eligible for federal funds. But it is declining to accept such moneys for two years on the theory that once you are up and running is the time to deal with bureaucratic regulations, rather than when you are fresh out of the starting gate.

While Sister Kathleen worked her fiscal magic, Sister Doris Ann Gentry, now the center’s education and careers director, set about recruiting women for the program. Working with community groups, last September she put together a mailing list of 44 potential candidates. On October 14, opening day, 32 showed up. Twenty-five are still in the program, the other seven having dropped out due to domestic and drug-related problems.

Though Sister Kathleen is the center’s executive director, its day-to-day running is left to Associate Director Patricia McLaughlin, universally known as Sister Pat. Sister Pat is part of a staff of seven, four of them members of the order (including herself). The staff includes an education/careers director, a social worker, a facilities manager, three teachers and a director for the after-school program for children. Firm but fair, the staff members expect and demand high levels of motivation and achievement from the clientele.

Naturally, the SSND has high hopes for what the center may be able to achieve. However, Sister Pat is aware that one of the criticisms that may be leveled against it is its selectivity. In other words, assuming the center’s personal-responsibility approach to job training proves more successful than traditional, public-sector programs, the big-government crowd may claim that this is simply because the center has picked the clients most likely to succeed – perhaps leaving those most in need to fend for themselves. (This is the same justification teachers’ unions use for excusing the public schools’ poor performance in comparison to religious schools, an argument deflected by David Gadson in this issue.)

It is true that the Caroline Center’s clients are by definition reasonably self-motivated, otherwise they would not have made the effort to enroll in the program. The center screens them for drug use and they must be literate. This said, Sister Pat is quick to point out that the social profile of the women is much like that of the average welfare recipient in Baltimore. Of the 25 remaining members of the first group, the median age is 36. The oldest is 61 years old; the youngest, 20. Nine of the women have high-school diplomas; five have general-equivalency diplomas (GEDs); eleven have neither. All but one of the women are black; the other is Peruvian. Fifteen have school-age children; some have adult children. Five of the clients are married. Two have live-in boyfriends. Fifteen are single mothers. The others still live with their own parents. Ten are on the state’s Family Assistance Program (FIP), which in Maryland replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program last year. Five are on the federal Supplementary Security Income program (SSI). Another two are on both FIP and SSI. Two have jobs. The other five have no reported source of income.3

Clearly, then, the center’s success cannot be attributed to its clients’ being somehow wealthier or better educated than other welfare recipients, for obviously they are not. Rather, it is not that the center is accepting a different sort of person; it is that it has constructed a different sort of program.

Job Training, Federal Style

The truth is, for the most part, federal job-training efforts have been a dismal failure. Costly and bureaucratic, such programs are impersonal and have little impact on the earnings potential of participants. As is its wont, the government has done little to examine the efficacy of its own multi-billion dollar expenditure over the years. Indeed, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich himself has said as much: “There are many areas where little thorough and reliable evaluation evidence is available.”4 Certainly the government’s fiscal watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office, has harshly criticized both the Job Corps program and the training schemes housed under Title II-A of the Job Training Partnership Act for underreporting the proportion of funding going into administration instead of services.5 In terms of that service, the Title II-A programs have been found: (a) to have no statistical impact on the average earnings of adult men; (b) to have no statistical impact on the average earnings of young women; (c) to be correlated with a decrease in young males’ average earnings (-7.9 percent); and (d) to be correlated with a minor increase in the average earnings of adult women (3.4 percent).6

Conservative analyst Mark Wilson is correct in his observation that federal training programs “do not achieve their primary goal – better-paying jobs – because there is little, if anything, the government can do to alter the effect of neglecting the first 12 years of school. What is needed are more fundamental changes aimed at reducing illegitimacy and encouraging individuals to complete high school.”7 In short, if training programs do not address values, they are doomed to failure. Though fancy program names may camouflage the fact, most job-training programs consist mostly of government-provided remedial education. If the public sector – in the form of the public education establishment – was unable to inculcate the necessary values and skills for productive workplace involvement early in a client’s life, there is no reason to suppose that the public sector can do any better later in life. This may be where institutions such as the Caroline Center come in.

The Center at Work

Perhaps the most crucial difference between the Caroline program and federal programs is this: The Caroline Center asks for something in return. While the center’s services to the women are free, the latter must give back some service time – in the form of cleaning duties, clerical tasks or staffing the reception desk. This gives the women a sense of investment in the program, says Sister Pat, and is based on the same self-help concept as the successful Habitat for Humanity house-building operation.

The Caroline program is divided into three phases. (The first group of clients has just graduated phase 1.) The phase 1 day starts at 9:00 a.m. prompt with a moment of prayer, generally followed by an hour-long presentation by a guest lecturer, who discusses the center’s three phase 1 goals. These are (a) getting and keeping a job, (b) articulating a career path and (c) building self-esteem. Presentations are likely to concentrate on interview skills, résumé design, family health concerns, self-discipline and so on – attributes often left untaught in the mayhem of the broken family.

More formal instruction starts at ten, lasting until noon. The clients receive lessons in communications skills, mathematics, reading, and keyboarding and computers. These lessons are provided by the three on-site teachers, and are designed to provide the women with the tools they need for office employment. A break for lunch follows. Then the women may pursue their own interests, such as continuing to work on their computer techniques, provided they also set aside time for their duties for the center. The day ends at 4:30 p.m. (An after-school program called the Caroline Academy is provided for young children to fill in the gap between the end of the school day and the end of the center’s day.) On Fridays, the first hour of the day is taken up by “Caroline circles,” support-group meetings that function rather like Alcoholics Anonymous sessions. Then there often field trips to local businesses.

Phase 1 lasts about eight weeks, so the first cohort of clients has just graduated to phase 2. This lasts an indefinite period, and is more tailored to each of the women’s needs. According to Sister Pat, 11 will get their GEDs during phase 2, a couple will probably land jobs, and the rest will continue honing their computer and secretarial talents. With the first group of women moving to phase 2, a new group of 30 clients started phase 1 on February 3. After phase 2 is completed, there is a theoretical and indefinitely lasting phase 3, mostly support workshops for continued self-improvement.

There are a couple of practical drawbacks to the Caroline program, though these are not of its own making. The state Department of Human Resources (DHR) has not certified the center’s services, so the clients’ training cannot count toward the mandatory 20 hours a week of “work related” activities they must perform under the reformed welfare system. In the eyes of the government, the women are doing nothing. So the clock continues inexorably ticking toward the end of their five-year lifetime limitation on welfare recipiency. The women are thus no more rewarded than their less ambitious, stay-at-home sisters. Second, because DHR has not certified the center, the clients are not eligible for day-care vouchers to use while they attend the center.

Nonetheless, all the women are clearly enthusiastic about their participation at the Caroline Center. For some, their involvement in the non-profit gives them a rare sensation of ownership in their otherwise government-dominated lives. Sister Pat puts this down to the center’s ability to provide a holistic program, not restricted exclusively to job skills but, rather, also touching upon the way the women approach all facets of their lives. She foresees a greater role for charities in the provision of social services in the future, as “we many times can do it better.” Fewer government strings would certainly help, she continues, and there must be a full-fledged “partnership between the state and private-sector charities.”

“Always an Alum”

When you first meet Rosemary Ross, 38, you will be impressed by a sensible and self-reliant woman. You will be surprised to learn that she is on welfare. Though she has a high-school diploma, the poor quality of public education in the city, domestic troubles and the arrival of a daughter (now 7) over the years conspired to make her involvement in the work place a sporadic one. Financial difficulties resulted in her dropping out of Coppin State College. Brought up in the projects, Ms. Ross has been enrolled in the Caroline program since day 1, which she heard about through neighborhood word of mouth. Despite little previous computer training, she has by now mastered the ubiquitous Windows ’95, and in fact now mentors other clients in their afternoon self-help computer sessions.

Ms. Ross is also not shy about letting her opinions be known. The Caroline Center, she tells you, is far superior to government job-training conveyor belts. The staff members “give you support – spiritual guidance and social work.” No such support exists with government programs, which with she says she has had experience. Even once she has graduated the Caroline Center’s program, she knows she will “always be an alum.” When a reporter asks if this is the case with public-sector training schemes, the response is an incredulous and long drawn out “Nooooo!”

Welfare Reform

In fact, Ms. Ross appears altogether more enthusiastic about welfare reform than Sister Pat. She says that it is vital for welfare recipients to get out of the house – for any reason. Oftentimes, she says, they rarely get out and slowly lose their zest for life. “Many lack self-motivation,” she says. If a reformed welfare system forces them into some form of activity – any form of activity – this will be to their own long-term advantage.

Sister Pat disparages the legislature’s current debate about mandatory drug-testing for welfare applicants, calling it “an insult” (though the center does test its own applicants).8 Ms. Ross, on the other hand, proclaims herself to be “for it.” She also ventures that many, if not most, welfare recipients would be likely to favor such a plan. She does, however, suggest that drug treatment ought to be made available for those failing the test.

Likewise, Ms. Ross is not necessarily opposed to the state’s new “family cap” (meaning that additional cash support will not be provided to welfare mothers having additional children while on the rolls).9 Ms. Ross says that something “must be done” to discourage pregnancies, though does not think the children should be left to starve. Told by a reporter that vouchers will be provided for mothers to buy infants’ necessities, Ms. Ross says she is “fine with that.”

In fact, confuting reporters’ and the establishment’s expectations, Ms. Ross has few apparent ideological complaints about welfare reform. Her qualms are purely practical. She predicts that reform may founder on the child-care issue. With the correct prodding and with adequate provisions for child care, she suggests that many welfare mothers would be satisfied with time limits on recipiency. She is concerned about DHR’s disinclination to certify the Caroline program. She is keen to encourage volunteer activities on the part of the Caroline clients and other welfare recipients, noting that this would be a useful way of gaining work experience. In the case of the center, it might encourage DHR to issue certification.

In Sum

One particularly positive aspect of the cumbersomely titled Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) – better known as “welfare reform” – is that the law specifically allows state governments to contract with faith-based organizations to provide social services.10 The Caroline Center has not yet availed itself of this money, because of accompanying regulations. However, the omens are good. If the government funds successful, small-scale religious and other organizations to assist welfare recipients back into the world of work, the day of the wasteful, cookie-cutter federal program may be over. It is too early to tell if the Caroline Center’s approach to job training will prove superior to the government’s, though surely it cannot prove less efficacious. However, in one sense, the center will always have one over on the public sector. It is simple really. As Rosemary Ross says, “This is our house.”

Dr. Munro is the co-director and CEO of the Calvert Institute.

End Notes

[Top] 1. Unless otherwise noted, all information for this article is based upon interviews conducted by the author at the Caroline Center on December 11, 1996.

[Top] 2. School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), Caroline Center: Blessing and Dedication, program guide (Baltimore, Md.: SSND, December 1996), pp. [1]-[2].

[Top] 3. Taken from data provided by the Caroline Center.

[Top] 4. As quoted in Mark Wilson, “Welfare Reform and Job Training Programs: What Congress Doesn’t Know Will Cost Taxpayers Billions,” Heritage Foundation F.Y.I., August 16, 1995, p. 2.

[Top] 5. See U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), GAO/HRD-91-97, Job Training Partnership Act: Inadequate Oversight Leaves Program Vulnerable to Waste, Abuse and Mismanagement (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, July 30, 1991); also GAO, GAO/HEHS-95-180, JOB CORPS: High Costs and Mixed Results Raise Questions about Program’s Effectiveness (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, June 30, 1995).

[Top] 6. Wilson, “Welfare Reform and Job Training Programs,” p. 2.

[Top] 7. Wilson, “Welfare Reform and Job Training Programs,” p. 1.

[Top] 8. For further discussion on this proposal, see Douglas P. Munro and Michael I. Krauss, “Why Maryland Should Screen Welfare Applicants for Drug Use,” Calvert Institute Calvert Comment, Vol. I, No. 3, December 23, 1996.

[Top] 9. See State of Maryland, General Assembly, Welfare Innovation Act of 1996 (Senate Bill 778, 1996), pp. 15-16.

[Top] 10. [Stanley Carlson-Thies], A Guide to Charitable Choice: The Rules of Section 104 of the 1996 Federal Welfare Law Governing State Cooperation with Faith-Based Social-Service Providers (Washington, D.C.: Center for Public Justice, 1997), passim.

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