By Simon Fass, Ph.D. – April 1991
The end of the United States’ military involvement in Indochina marked the beginning of a tide of refugee immigration from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos that would accumulate to almost one million individuals between 1975 and 1990. Tucked away in this flow of immigrants was a people from Laos tracing their origins as far back as 2700 B.C. who called themselves Hmong. Over 90,000 of them have come to the United States. Between 17,000 and 20,000 now live in Wisconsin.
Compared to other Indochinese refugees and to disadvantaged minorities within the native population, Hmong have had considerable difficulty integrating themselves into the economic mainstream. Though most have lived in Wisconsin for more than five years, more than half the adults remain unemployed today and half the families continue to receive public welfare assistance from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children-Unemployed Parent (AFDC-UP) program.
These figures are disturbingly high, but they are not surprising. This country has rarely, if ever, welcomed a group of immigrants so culturally distant from the native social and economic mainstream. Rarely have we absorbed a population that had so little initial understanding of the meaning or purposes of basic things such as participation in a labor market, income production from wage employment, public assistance, or self-sufficiency as our society defines these concepts. Rarely has there been an inflow of people, even if they grasped these things and earnestly tried to live up to our expectations about the attributes of productive citizenship, who were as ill-equipped to do so when they arrived. Yet after an interval of 15 years since the first family arrived in the state, a period during which Hmong and natives helping them sometimes despaired at the possibility of their ever joining the mainstream, there is now a solid basis for hope that this will eventually prove possible for the vast majority.
In part, this hope springs from the observation that rates of unemployment and welfare use have dropped substantially in recent years. Helped by the expansion of employment opportunities in the state since the end of the last recession in 1982, these declines largely resulted from a joint effort by federal and state refugee resettlement agencies and Mutual Assistance Associations (MAAs)- self-help organizations that refugee communities establish for themselves wherever they live–to help families take advantage of the opportunities. In operation since 1987, this effort is the Key States Initiative (KSI). In action if not in word, it is a voluntary family economic development program that seeks only one objective: self-sufficiency.
Toward this end KSI adopts a family-focused approach in which staff members design strategies for self-sufficiency to fit the particular circumstances of individual households. It uses a combination of job development and placement services, short-term skills training, on-the-job training, and after-placement follow-up support services to produce a combination of workers, wages, and hours of work in each family sufficient to make total earnings from employment greater than welfare income. KSI also taps funds available in other federal and state programs to extend Medical Assistance for one year beyond termination from welfare and to support transportation and child care costs when necessary.
Because these services are unable to make a difference unless families are willing to take advantage of them, a crucial component of KSI is its reliance on MAAs to carry out its objectives, and on Hmong leaders to encourage families to seek self-sufficiency by volunteering to participate in the program. KSI is thus a public-private partnership through which responsibility for making the program work rests with the Hmong themselves. This community “ownership” of the program seems to have been a key factor in helping more than 600 families, or almost one-third of those receiving AFDC-UP when the program began, to move off of welfare during the last three years.
KSI is now working with families that contain adults who are very difficult to employ, that have too many dependents in relation to the earning power of the adults in them, and that have adults who–unlike their predecessors–are not as motivated to become self-sufficient. Progress in the future appears likely to be slower than in the recent past. Yet hope for improvement over the longer term remains high because Hmong children are doing extraordinarily well in school: Grade scores are usually 40% higher than for native Wisconsin students, the high school dropout rate is negligible, the graduation rate is close to 100%, and the share of graduates going on to technical school and college is also very high. If this standard of performance sustains itself, self-sufficiency of the vast majority of the next generation of Hmong adults seems almost guaranteed. Hmong children on welfare today seem to have every likelihood of taking their parents off of welfare tomorrow.
Extending beyond the Hmong, the KSI experience seems to offer at least two messages for future immigrants with similar characteristics and for natives who find difficulty breaking the bonds of welfare support. One is that many reforms introduced into the welfare system in recent years have been long overdue. Some of these changes–accommodation of two-parent families in the system through the AFDC-UP program; case management to address specific constraints faced by different families; more attention to training, child care, and health care needs; and greater allowances for part-time work earnings–now make it possible for the welfare system to do more than it could before. Additional changes might be helpful. Even without them, at the very least the system now contains the flexibility it needs to function as a child protection and income insurance program (welfare’s traditional purposes), as a family economic development program, or both.
The second message is that there is room to experiment with different ways of transferring “ownership” of programs and responsibility for their execution to the communities that are to benefit from them. Role modeling and peer-group pressure are much more effective in cultivating a will to seek self-sufficiency than are imposition of mandatory participation in programs or haranguing by government employees. African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans may not have organizations or leadership structures comparable to those of Hmong, but they do have an existing infrastructure of local organizations–such as church-based groups–that present themselves as potential foundations for determining whether a people-centered approach to self sufficiency similar to KSI can prove helpful.