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Reductions imminent for state assistance programs

by: Tyler Graf FACING CUTS — Debbie Hampton says she has fallen on hard times since her husband broke his back in a work-related accident. But Oregon’s Sheltered Works program has allowed her to gain job experience as a volunteer at Norma’s Place in St. Helens. Come July 1, her programs will see major cuts.

As Debbie Hampton reflects on where she is today, and where she might be in the future, she comes to an incontrovertible reality: She's 54 years old and is starting over.

Less than three years ago, Hampton was 'living the American dream.' She had financial security, a small family business and a house in Columbia City.

Now she's on welfare, has a husband who is unable to work due to a gruesome accident and is attempting to build a foundation for future employment through the state's Sheltered Works program.

She works 35 hours a week at Norma's Place, the St. Helens thrift store run by the Women's Resource Center. Hampton, like most of the store's employees, is a volunteer who receives employment training through her work. Small stipends for gas and living expenses come from the state.

'I've learned so much here,' Hampton says, standing behind the register desk in the store's main showroom. 'I've learned I can be a leader.'

But come July 1, the state program that provides families with financial assistance while they seek self sufficiency will have its budget slashed by more than 50 percent. What that means for Columbia County and its 2,500 unemployed adults is that many of them will have fewer resources.

Relative to the rest of the state, Columbia County will take a resounding hit.

Though the county's unemployment rate, which stands at 10.2 percent as of May, continues to drop - more than 2 percent in the last year - it remains well above the state-wide rate of 9.1 percent.

Cuts will come from the Department of Human Services' Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and JOBS Opportunity and Basic Skills programs, which will see $60 million stripped from their budgets in the next biennium.

Specifically, state reimbursements for gas and employment-related childcare will be significantly scaled back. The local office of Management and Training Corporation Works, which has a contract through DHS to provide regional jobs training and employment services, has already laid off employees and reduced its services.

The Sheltered Works program, too, will be reduced.

'We're making sure we're doing some good evaluation to make sure we don't scale back so much people can't participate,' says Marge Reinhart, the administrator for DHS' Office of Self-Sufficiency Programs.

The cuts come as little surprise, however. For the last two years, DHS' TANF and JOBS programs have been held together by a Band-Aid solution.

During Oregon's last budget biennium, the state received $83.4 million from federal stimulus money to keep the programs afloat. But with that lifesaver unavailable for the upcoming biennium, the programs continue to sink deeper under the weight of a 50 percent increase in DHS caseloads since the economy began to dip in 2007.

The cuts to the state's Sheltered Works program in particular will pose problems for Julie Beehler, the manager of Norma's Place, where Hampton works. She expects to cut the number of Sheltered Works positions, which provide work experience, at Norma's Place from 15 to seven.

That will make it harder for those people to find employment in the future, she says.

'Even with [work] experience,' Beehler says, 'There are no jobs out there. It's tough.'

Though things may look tight for Hampton, the Norma's Place volunteer who wants to get back on her feet, she says she remains hopeful about the future. At least she still has her husband.

And that wouldn't have happened had he not suffered the life-altering accident that broke his back, when an industrial lawnmower fell on him. At the hospital, doctors found multiple aneurysms in his chest.

Had he not received medical attention, doctors said at the time, he would have been dead within a month.

Because of that, Hampton says she always remains optimistic.