Gov. Gary Locke on Friday recognized close to 70 businesses, including one from Klickitat County, for providing jobs that help strengthen Washington's economy and break the cycle of poverty for families who have made the transition from welfare to work.
"Today we celebrate and recognize the power of opportunity and the power of helping people improve their lives," Locke told employers during an awards ceremony at South Seattle Community College.
This is the first year the governor has presented awards to show appreciation for Washington state businesses that have contributed to the success of WorkFirst, the state's successful five-year-old welfare reform program. Employers were nominated by WorkFirst and named "WorkFirst Ambassadors."
Since 1997, business partners have helped more than 125,000 WorkFirst parents leave welfare and stay off. Last year alone, about 30,000 WorkFirst participants found jobs.
"These are tough times," Locke said. "WorkFirst is an example of how we will beat this recession. The program brings business, government, education and people in need together. The result is a program that benefits all of us."
Locke told the audience everyone wins with WorkFirst. Participants become more self-reliant, businesses gain valued employees and save on hiring and training costs, communities receive more tax revenue and government reduces its welfare costs, he said. "Costs go down and employment goes up. That's definitely a winning combination."
The number of families on welfare in Washington state has dropped by 45 percent since 1997 to about 52,500 - the lowest caseload in nearly 20 years. State spending on welfare grants has been cut by a third. The proportion of the state population on welfare is less then 2.5 percent, the lowest level in more than 30 years.
The governor said businesses are a key part of that success.
An example of a WorkFirst success story is Innovative Composite Engineering, Inc. of Bingen. The company participates in the Community Jobs program, providing work experience, training and intensive mentoring for WF participants with employment barriers.
Locke said the state needs more programs like WorkFirst.
"Instead of perpetuating the poverty cycle, we are breaking it," he said. "Instead of throwing huge amounts of money into welfare, we're helping people escape welfare to become contributors to our economy. WorkFirst helps participants gain employment. And it helps our state keep pace with the workforce demands of the 21st century. It puts people to work and teaches them how to stay employed and continue to succeed."
WorkFirst services are administered by the state's Department of Social and Health Services, Employment Security Department, State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.