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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Don Sundquist’s Families First welfare reform program has helped boost education and employment levels among state welfare recipients, a University of Tennessee study shows.

Dr. Bill Fox, the UT-Knoxville economist who directed the study, said 74.4 percent of Families First adults had held a job sometime during the study period from September 1996 to October 1997, compared to 56.6 percent in the same period a year before the program started.

”We are seeing more families go to work, gain independence and become more productive members of society,” Fox said. ”This type of progress is exactly the intent of the Families First program.”

The study also shows that nearly 54 percent of the participating adults had a high school diploma or equivalent in October 1997. That’s up from 50 percent in September 1995, Fox said.

”Education makes people more employable,” Fox said. ”A more educated workforce helps create a more productive state economy.

”This is an important focus of the Families First program, and this increase is an encouraging sign.”

Families First, launched Sept. 1, 1996, is a temporary cash assistance program which emphasizes work, job training and education. Participants are eligible for help with child care, transportation and making the transition back into the workforce.

The UT study also found:

— Tennessee’s welfare caseload declined 39 percent from about 95,741 cases in October 1995 to 58,476 cases in October 1997.

— nearly 33 percent of Families First adults had jobs in October 1997, up from 26 percent in October 1995.

— the percentage of welfare households above the poverty level increased from less than one percent to 10 percent.

Welfare assistance in the state’s four largest counties rose from about 54 percent to 61 percent over the two-year period, and dropped in rural areas, 46 percent to 38 percent.

Fox cited lack of transportation to jobs in neighboring rural counties, increases in overall education levels in rural areas, and slower economic growth in Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties for the urban increase.

Also, the percentage of black caretakers increased from 53 to 61 percent, while the percentage of white caretakers dropped from 46 percent to 38 percent.

However, despite relative increases in percentages among urban and black caretakers, the number of overall cases for each of these groups declined, Fox said.

”The split along racial lines is because most black recipients live in the state’s four largest counties which saw less economic growth,” Fox said. ”Fewer blacks live in rural counties which experienced greater economic growth.

”Also, when looking at welfare cases in all 27 counties in the state’s metropolitan statistical areas — not just the four largest — welfare cases split along urban, rural and racial demographics are much more even.”