COLUMBIA — The director of South Carolina’s social services agency said Tuesday more of its clients are getting jobs and coming off welfare rolls.


But an advocate for the poor says that doesn’t mean they’re making a livable wage.


Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller said nearly 12,300 people stopped receiving welfare payments between September 2011 and June through its welfare-to-work program. That’s more than double the number during those months a year earlier and exceeds Koller’s goal by 22 percent.


Koller said the more important figure is the 21,000 children whose parents are now working and can break the cycle of poverty.


“Being on public assistance can really debilitate the soul,” Koller said. What matters for the state’s neediest, she said, “is to get them out of poverty, not to live a little more comfortably in it. A surefire way of doing this is through employment.”


Gov. Nikki Haley praised the agency as proving that people receiving assistance want to work and improve their situations.


In South Carolina, welfare pays a mom with two children just $223 a month. To qualify, parents must earn less than half the federal poverty level, meaning that mom with two children stops receiving welfare after getting work that pays the equivalent of a $9,545 yearly salary.


About half of those taken off welfare are working at least 30 hours weekly – the threshold for what’s considered full-time work.


The average pay for the jobs they’re getting is $9 an hour, Koller said.


A 12-page list of employers partnering with the agency to hire welfare recipients includes big-box retailers, grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and janitorial services. Other private employers range from farms to a yacht club.


Susan Gibson of Winnsboro Petroleum said she’s hired 30 people through the program to work in her business’ 26 convenience stores, saving her company the time and money in finding eager workers.


The key is focusing on what clients can do, not their barriers to working, Koller said.


They’re finding work despite the state’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate, she said, because they’re willing to take entry-level jobs. DSS employees screen welfare recipients to match them with jobs, schedule interviews and even drive them to meet employers. Welfare payments continue during a four-month transition period and childcare assistance can continue for up to two years after welfare payments end, Koller said.


An advocate for the poor notes those coming off welfare rolls are still well below the poverty level. Wages are better than the paltry welfare payment, “but if that’s all we’re doing we’re coming up way short,” said Sue Berkowitz of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center.


“What we have to figure out is why we are willing to think that living at such a low wage is something to feel victorious about?” she said. “We’re not looking at the right answers.”


The agency’s welfare-to-work program focuses on those deemed eligible to work, which is down to 6,400. Federal law exempts from work goals the disabled and those with a baby less than a year old.


More people qualify for food assistance, which they can receive until they earn 135 percent of federal poverty levels.


DSS is also working with food stamp recipients to help them get jobs paying enough so they come off those rolls as well. About 97,000 people receiving food assistance are eligible to work, Koller said.


In all, more than 870,000 people in South Carolina were fed with the government’s help in July, according to the agency. Koller said half of those are children.