Most of the people I know who are on welfare don't want to be there. While a lot has been said about the "free ride" public assistance provides, the reality is a little different.

If you're lucky, public assistance allows the head of household and the dependents to live at about half the poverty level. And, while food stamps assure that no one starves, the caliber of existence can be pretty bleak.That's why state officials, case managers, and low-income advocates all agree that the ultimate goal of the system should be self-sufficiency. And programs are in place to help achieve that goal.

But there are a lot of variables that determine whether or not the programs work.

One of the methods being employed around the state is the so-called "self-directed job search." It's attracted a lot of reaction, both criticism and praise.

I don't know what to think about it.

Self-directed job search isn't really any different that what thousands of people do every day. You go to businesses and fill out applications, try for interviews and hope to be hired.

In the case of public assistance recipients, the difference is that they have a case manager who will hopefully provide moral support and offer suggestions. In some of the programs, there are classes available to improve job-search, interview and resume-writing skills.

Some public assistance staff workers are receiving training in how to teach those skills.

I recently visited one of the Office of Community Operations sites to view a training video on the self-directed job search. The speaker spent a lot of time explaining why getting a job - any job - is a good idea.

Then I talked to a researcher for a low-income advocacy group. She's worried about the any-job approach to independence, and she has some very good arguments.

Proponents to that approach believe that people who are currently employed have a better chance of getting another job.

"Take a job, even if it's not what you ultimately want," the motivator said on the tape. "You can use that job as a stepping stone to something that pays better and gives you more satisfaction."

The biggest plus is enhanced self-esteem. Someone who is working at one job knows that he can work. And if he's already been hired once, by somebody, there's no reason to think it can't or won't happen again.

In a best-case scenario, there are advantages. But I can see where there could be some serious drawbacks. For one thing, "job hopping" doesn't look very good - or very professional - on a resume.

People who don't have a lot of skills, education, or training usually end up taking low-skill jobs with low pay and few benefits.

Those who try to support a family on a minimum or near-minimum wage job can find that they are actually worse off financially, although that's hard to believe. And they can lose the few medical benefits they receive from the state Medicaid program.

Worse, moving up to a better job can be impossible without enhanced skills. And some of the jobs available to the unskilled don't go a long way toward training for better jobs.

Again on the plus side, those who succeed in getting a job through a self-directed job search are usually the most motivated because it takes a lot of hustle.

And the motivated clients are also the ones who will take the time to learn new skills and improve the qualities they have to offer an employer.

But I have a suspicion that the real way to get people off public assistance is not a quick-fix method. I don't think the ultimate solution will be a program that tells recipients to go out and take any job - even if they'll hate it and starve on it.

That's an endemic approach to a systemic problem. What we need is long-range goals and dedication in the form of time and money for effective programs, effort and training.

It's not enough to get people off public assistance temporarily. We need to provide them with the skills they need to get off permanently.

If we can provide some sort of system that gives people a chance to get decent jobs, where they can support themselves and their families - and contribute to the tax base that helps others who need public assistance - we're going to be way ahead.

We'll be building a future - not just for the individuals involved, but for the whole state.