FOR RELEASE: September 7, 2000



"First Wheels" program puts more Tennesseans on the road to work

CHATTANOOGA—Gov. Don Sundquist today marked the fourth anniversary of Families First by highlighting an innovative car-ownership program aimed at making working parents the driving force behind their own success.

"Access to reliable transportation means access to jobs, to shopping, to education and to job training. With First Wheels we are helping families, especially those in our rural areas, knock down one of the major barriers to self-sufficiency,'' Sundquist said.

First Wheels, a key factor in phase two of the state's 4-year-old welfare reform initiative, provides zero interest auto loans on used vehicles (valued up to $4,600) to eligible Families First participants. These are families that have been unable to qualify for a car loan through conventional financing.

Since First Wheels rolled into action in mid-April, 79 families in 31 counties have qualified for loans and are behind the wheel, in control of their lives. The program was phased into the state's rural counties first because of the lack of public-transportation systems in those areas. Plans are underway to expand First Wheels statewide.

Since the 1996 inception of Families First, limited transportation services, including van shuttle services, bus passes and gas reimbursements, have been available to qualified Families First participants. In 1999, additional transportation dollars became available through the federal Access to Jobs transportation grants. That money has helped expand urban public transportation routes to higher-paying manufacturing jobs in outlying areas.

"Thanks to First Wheels and Access to Jobs, welfare reform is working in Tennessee,'' Sundquist said. ``With First Wheels, as with Families First, we are helping people help themselves. We are saying to them, we want to lend a hand, but you have obligations, too.''

Overall, Families First continues to be a huge success in Tennessee.

    • Tennessee ranked 3rd in the nation for job placement.
    • Tennessee has realized a 39 percent reduction in its cash assistance caseload.
    • Of those who obtain jobs, 80.6 percent are staying on the job for at least six months.
    • Over a nine-month period, those employed have received close to a 25 percent pay increase.

"Instead of continuing the cycle of dependency, we are breaking it. We are taking what once were second and third generation welfare dependents, and we are helping turn them into first generation success stories … active, productive and proud members of Tennessee's workforce," Sundquist said.

"Now that we have helped more than 36,000 families say goodbye to government handouts and hello to self-sufficiency, we have an even better understanding of what it takes to help a family succeed.''

The governor was joined by officials from the Tennessee Resource, Conservation and Development Council and local Families First Advisory Council members from Hamilton and Polk counties. Together, they presented car keys to three families who recently were approved for car loans through the First Wheels statewide revolving loan program.

DHS Commissioner Natasha Metcalf said her department continues to work with every level of government, as well as the private sector, to alleviate common barriers to families in the state's welfare reform program.

"We are committed to continuous improvement in this program. Families First is a long term investment in people—people who want to obtain the necessary skills and training to compete with others successfully in the work place," Metcalf said.

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