If the architects of welfare reform ever harbor doubts about the future success of their plans, people like Lisa and Rhafel McElrath must haunt their dreams. Will the new federal law that makes welfare recipients work for their checks reverse the passivity and degradation the old system has entrenched over the last 30 years? It’s much too soon to know. But couples like the McElraths suggest how monumental the task of reclamation will be.
Late last October, Rhafel, 33, fidgeted in the hallway of a New York City Parks Department building in East Harlem while Lisa received her orientation for the city’s workfare program. Tall and well built, sporting a trendy Tommy Hilfiger Collection sweatshirt and a gold earring, Rhafel quickly changes the subject when I ask why Lisa, not he, will start working for the couple’s welfare check tomorrow. Pressed further, he takes his stand on principle: “I’ll have to like the job I’m doing. And I won’t work for less than minimum wage.”
Lisa and Rhafel are the end products of one of the more perverse schemes for social improvement designed by man. They live on Home Relief, a state- and city-funded program for able-bodied childless adults that is virtually identical in both its benefit levels and its destructive consequences to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main federal welfare program. Devoid of personal initiative, they define their lives wholly by the welfare entitlements that surround them. Move to another state? Only if the welfare system there will support them. Look for work? Sorry, not compatible with their gypsy life in the city’s homeless shelter system, which requires them to move every month. While in some respects easy, such an existence is by no means simple. They are at the mercy of faulty computers, incompetent bureaucrats, arbitrary rules, and periodic changes in their welfare case that they may or may not deserve but almost never comprehend. “I’m getting very sick of this,” Rhafel petulantly says, as if he has no other choices.
As we wait for Lisa, Rhafel fills in some details of their lives. They consume just about every social service the city offers, from shelter to corrections. About six months ago, they were burned out of their apartment, in a fire that neighbors blame on Rhafel. Since then, they have been navigating the city’s archipelago of homeless hotels while they wait for the magic day in November when they become eligible, as six-month veterans of the homeless system, for federal Section 8 housing vouchers.
The clean and orderly hotel where they now live on a tree-shaded block of West 22nd Street supplies them with soap, toilet paper, fresh linen, and a refrigerator; on-site social workers provide directions to food pantries and clothing giveaways. A manager of the hotel, a dapper African named Mr. Diop, expresses pessimism about the current welfare reforms: “I sit here five years and observe these people,” he says. “They never should have put able-bodied people in this mess. At least the criminal lives for crime, but these people have lost all their motivation.”
In fact, Rhafel is no stranger to crime, having been on Rikers Island three times for selling drugs. He admits he steals. His “wife” Lisa—they purport to be married, though they can’t find their marriage license and the city does not recognize them as such—has been in jail, too.
Rhafel says he could find employment—albeit off the books—in a week. Relatively well-spoken and affable, he recounts that the longest he ever held a job, as a kitchen aide, was eight months; his last job, working as a low-paid messenger four years ago, lasted three days. “That job sucked,” he says. “I told myself: ‘This is not the way.’ ” Instead of looking for work, Rhafel intends to apply for his own food stamps. “Let them pay my rent,” he asserts defiantly. “I’m going for every dime I can get out of them.” He adds one caveat: “If they make you work, I’m not doing it.”
Fortunately for Rhafel, Lisa doesn’t take quite so principled a stand against working for welfare. Rhafel takes pride in his willingness to let Lisa be the breadwinner of the family. “She’s the case head, and I don’t want to touch that,” he says. “She feels more comfortable that way. I try to make her happy, which is not an easy task.”
Finally Lisa emerges from her workfare orien-tation, complaining loudly. Wearing a nose-ring, high-heeled leather boots, and an American Express T-shirt over an extremely full figure, she has only two remaining teeth protruding from her upper jaw. “I told them: ‘I’m homeless; I can’t be doing all this traveling,’” she sputters. Lisa insists that she has been assigned to a Brooklyn park, though her assignment clearly states that she will be working in lower Manhattan. This will be her fourth placement in the city’s workfare program; she went AWOL from each of her previous assignments. The couple’s explanation of why she quit her last placement lacks all connection with reality. “They took her computer away,” says Rhafel. “I don’t know why.” The likelihood that Lisa, who claims to be learning disabled and is at the very least a challenged reader, was ever given a computer workfare assignment is zero. But people caught in the welfare system typically develop just such fanciful explanations for why things happen to them.
Twenty-eight now, Lisa has worked only once—14 years ago in a summer youth job. She doesn’t get along well with people, she explains; also, she has hypertension and takes medication for a mental disorder. As we leave the Parks building and her partner disappears to do an errand, Lisa explains why she, not Rhafel, will be working tomorrow: “Because he’s lazy,” she says decisively. But why not make him head of the welfare case, so he has to do the workfare program? She taps her head meaningfully: “I may be slow, but I’m not stupid.” Like many underclass women, she has opted for the security of welfare over the sure disaster of a shiftless man—a shiftlessness that the welfare ethic is at least partly responsible for perpetuating.
When Congress voted last July to abolish AFDC, it hoped to smash the dependency culture that defines Rhafel and Lisa McElrath’s lives. It ended the entitlement status of federal welfare programs, meaning that the federal government will no longer guarantee assistance to everyone who meets its criteria for neediness. No provision struck greater fear and loathing into the hearts of poverty lobbyists, for they realized its potential to shift the ground of all social policy from a rights-based system of claims on government to one of mutual obligation: to get a government benefit, you now must do something in return. Equally abhorrent to the advocate bloc is the moral message of abolishing AFDC: you have no unconditional claim on your neighbors’ support if you have an illegitimate child.
In lieu of automatic federal welfare payments, Congress created a system of block grants to the states. States will now determine who should receive aid and for how long, using the federal money to supplement their own programs. For now, state definitions of welfare eligibility aren’t likely to change markedly, but over the long run states may decide that teen mothers, say, are not eligible for cash assistance, or may require them to live in group homes to get benefits.
Two aspects of the new law will have an immediate impact, however: its work requirements and time limits on federal aid.
The work requirement is hardly new in America. For two centuries before the activism of welfare-rights advocacy and the explosive growth of AFDC distorted the system, the able-bodied had to work in exchange for aid. The new law reinstates the requirement, penalizing states financially if they don’t put a rising portion of their welfare recipients to work. The new law won’t require welfare grantees to work right away; it allows a two-year period of idleness (which states may override) and gives states a six-year grace period until they have to put just half their caseload to work.
The most controversial aspect of the bill is its five-year lifetime limit on federal aid for any given family. An exemption of 20 percent of a state’s caseload, a percentage roughly equal to the irremediably dysfunctional population, softens the federal limit, and states remain free to use their own money for support beyond the five years. Nevertheless, the time limit is crucial: today, across the entire national welfare caseload, the average cumulative length of stay is 13 years, with plenty of 15- and 20-year spells on the rolls. The time limit, more than anything else, should push states to move recipients aggressively toward independence.
The law will spark change on an unprecedented scale, but local welfare reform efforts make it possible to predict some likely results. The centerpiece of reform thus far has been workfare, and two places—New York City and the state of Wisconsin—have led the national effort to put welfare recipients to work. New York’s is a largely untold story, while Wisconsin, which organizes workfare very differently, has become a symbol of aggressive reform. Taken together, both stories demonstrate the strengths and limitations of workfare. While putting people to work is a necessary prerequisite to rebuilding character, it only begins the moral reconstruction of the inner city.
New York City is the sleeper of welfare reform. Despite its well-earned reputation as the nation’s dependency capital, it is actually making giant changes in its fossilized welfare culture. It is putting into practice key lessons learned 20 years ago in the aftermath of the welfare-rights revolution. Following the advocacy-inspired surge in the welfare rolls in the seventies, the state and city imposed stricter welfare eligibility tests and work requirements. Officials discovered that for every trivial hurdle put between a recipient and his welfare check, a very non-trivial portion of the caseload simply disappears. Pick up your welfare check in person? Too much trouble. In the late seventies, welfare commissioner Blanche Bernstein ordered individuals on Home Relief to participate in government-operated workfare. The refusal rate ranged from 21 percent to 40 percent, demonstrating that many welfare recipients already work and cannot be in two places at once.
These lessons were quickly suppressed, however, and by the nineties New York’s welfare caseload had skyrocketed to well over a million individuals. Welfare advocates had long since regained control over local policy; Mayor David Dinkins’s welfare commissioner, Barbara Sabol, engaged in what a former welfare official dubs “pizza policy making”: invite all the advocates in at 6pm, order pizza, and figure out what to do next to help poor people.
The Giuliani administration has reversed that approach. If welfare officials once seemed embarrassed to inquire too closely into a recipient’s eligibility, the Giuliani administration, by contrast, has taken to heart Blanche Bernstein’s admonition that “there is no reason to believe that the poor are less adept at manipulating welfare than the rich are at manipulating the income tax system.” In 1995 the city began verifying eligibility with home visits and finger imaging: the rejection rate for Home Relief applicants tripled; for AFDC applicants, it doubled. From March 1995 (when the city began its eligibility reviews and workfare program) to November 1996, the rolls dropped from 1.16 million to 951,263—a decrease of 18 percent. If you look only at the Home Relief population, the initial target of reform, the results are even more dramatic: a drop of 35 percent in 20 months. The combined Home Relief and AFDC rolls are now dropping by 10,000 a month.
The centerpiece of the administration’s welfare reform effort is its huge workfare program, called the Work Experience Program, or WEP. It is unique among the nation’s current workfare experiments in its massive creation of public sector jobs: 35,000 welfare recipients, consisting of all new applicants and an increasing proportion of existing cases, the great majority on Home Relief, are currently sweeping the city’s streets, cleaning its courthouses, and tending its parks. City Hall will have to increase that number to approximately 60,000 by 1997 to meet the requirements of the new federal welfare bill—a daunting task. One thing that immediately strikes a visitor to the city’s WEP sites is that the program is not make-work. WEP workers are doing desperately needed maintenance tasks. They are cleaning jury rooms neglected for years, painting and repairing broken park furniture, and removing great swaths of graffiti. Street cleanliness ratings are setting records.
It has fallen to city employees to try to instill the work ethic in people who either have long since lost it or, like the McElraths, never had it. Reggie Washington, a WEP supervisor in Central Park, is just about ideal for that task. Small, round-faced, and wearing a diamond stud in one ear, he acquired his views on work and welfare from his feverishly disciplined Cuban mother and his travels abroad. “In Africa,” he says, “if you don’t work, you don’t eat. These people here don’t know how good they’ve got it.” He cites the contents of the current welfare package—free phone installation, food stamps, a housing allowance, and Medicaid—in wonder. “I’ve got a guy who got out of prison after ten years, and now he’s getting benefits,” he muses incredulously.
One cold October morning, Washington herds a group of WEP workers into a green Parks Department van and rumbles off with them to Fifth Avenue and 60th Street. There the workers tumble out, seize their tools, and immediately start raking and bagging leaves and trash. The alacrity and efficiency with which they begin working is the fruit of three weeks of training. For many, this is their first socialization to work. “Sometimes I have to send people home for bad language or street habits,” Washington says. “This is work; I’m not going to tolerate that.” Workers sent home have to make up the time. WEP sites try to maintain strict lateness policies and to enforce a modest dress code as well. Workers with unexcused absences get cut from the program and may lose their grants for a period of time.
The crew itself is a key source of socialization. Washington recalls that one crew threatened to beat up a fellow worker who was so lazy that he was holding it back. The women on Washington’s current crew recently had a “little talk” with an extraordinarily hostile fellow worker about her attitude—she had screamed at me, for example, that workfare was “indentured servitude.” Now she has settled down and become a good worker.
For many welfare recipients, the demands of the WEP program, including simply getting to work on time, are impossible to meet. The attrition rate is high. Up to 50 percent of recipients never show up for their first WEP orientation; after that, many supervisors lose 10 to 15 percent of their workers every two weeks.
Malik Medora, a slight, pale 19-year-old with a few bristles on his chin, is one of those who didn’t make it. Raised in Children’s Village, a large foster home in Dobbs Ferry, Medora is a homeless orphan, his mother having died of drug use and his father of drug-related AIDS. He spent his teens in the Coxsackie detention center near the Catskills for robbery, burglary, assaulting a police officer, and resisting arrest. Most of his brothers and sisters ended up in jail as well. He is currently trying to assemble a wardrobe, in part by theft. The possibility of getting caught holds no terrors for him: “At least if I go to jail, I’ll have three meals a day,” he sighs during a break from his park WEP job. A ninth-grade dropout, Medora has been filling out job applications, but he has no address or phone number to give employers.
When I spoke to him in October, Medora expressed gratitude for the WEP program. “This is constructive,” he said. “It gets me experience.” Less than two weeks later, he went AWOL. When welfare advocates insist that the city should be investing huge additional sums in job training for welfare recipients, it is well to bear in mind that many of the trainees, like Medora, are so far from job-ready that the investment will go down the drain. Medora needs help, to be sure, but job training doesn’t address his problems.
For those many other WEP workers ready for work—estimates range from a quarter to a third of the caseload—the program offers a small but real step into the job market. Supervisors quickly learn the work habits of their workers, and many go out of their way to provide some additional training, as well as job references, for the good workers. Omar Williams, a slender, remarkably polite 32-year-old, went from Reggie Washington’s WEP crew to a maintenance job with the Central Park Conservancy. “It was a great experience,” Williams says of the WEP program.
His enthusiasm is not an aberration. Many WEP workers appreciate the chance to do something useful. An older woman on Home Relief for the first time told me, “They shoulda done this long ago. It’s a fair deal and valuable work. Some people sit there and do nothing and take advantage of the system.” Some WEPs volunteer extra hours and take pride in their work, especially if they are stationed close to home and neighbors can see the results of their efforts.
Other WEP workers, however, seethe with indignation. Unlike other cities’ workfare programs, WEP makes little attempt to place people according to their skills, and recipients with work histories often feel insulted by being asked to clean streets. The city should be finding them jobs, they say, not “exploiting” their labor.
Unfortunately, New York’s welfare bureaucrats themselves sometimes disseminate the exploitation charge. I attended several WEP orientations that sent a decidedly mixed message, playing upon the resentment of recipients, even as the leaders stressed that the reforms are real. On the positive side, one director said: “They’re not playing around this time. They’re terminating people’s grants.” And many leaders also drive home the urgency of getting a job: “Take a minimum-wage job,” exclaimed a vivacious young trainer named Alison Williams to incoming WEPs at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. “If I were you, I would be flipping hamburgers so fast they would give me two spatulas.” Yet the message to get a job is laced with resentment against the program. “The welfare system is using you,” said Williams, questioning the legitimacy of the reforms and encouraging the hope that they can be repealed. “I hope you vote in November,” Williams counseled. “We should’ve left Dinkins in office: we’d be okay.” One life-skills trainer for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services directed me to an organization she has joined, the Welfare Reform Network, a coalition of left-wing Manhattan advocacy groups protesting and litigating against the reforms. Converting the bureaucracy to avoid such internal resistance is one of the biggest challenges of big-city welfare reform.
Thoughtful critics question whether workfare should take the form of a vast government jobs program. Many welfare experts, for instance, argue that large public employment programs like WEP are impossibly expensive. For the moment, though, New York makes a plausible case that the program is cost-effective. The city calculates that its net savings in fiscal 1995 were $175 million—the decreased benefit payouts minus the costs of administering WEP and the city’s intensive eligibility screening. That figure is expected to rise to a whopping $250 million during the current fiscal year. Moreover, the city is gaining extra labor that would cost $600 million if performed by unionized workers. Though individual city agencies initially hesitated before accepting the WEP program, since they received no extra funding for operating it, they have now embraced the idea. For an additional several thousand dollars in salaries for supervisors, who come from the ranks of city workers, an agency gets a dozen or more workers, who individually may not be as reliable as regular employees but en masse constitute serious additional help.
Other critics cite the risk that government workfare jobs will become an entitlement, “just another form of welfare,” in Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson’s phrase. People doing workfare, these critics say, can grow satisfied with their duties and feel little imperative to find private work. This charge has real bite. WEP supervisors already notice a tendency among good workers who enjoy their jobs to settle in for the long haul. The threat of time limits may, in the future, change that, but the city will also have to step up its nascent efforts to push people into the private sector.
If New York does increase its job placement efforts, according to another set of skeptics, it might well find that public-sector workfare is dead-end work, offering no bridge to the private economy. How many employers are looking for street cleaners or snow shovelers? But this criticism misses the point. Specific job skills are not the issue; socialization and discipline are. (See “At Last, a Job Program That Works,” page 32.)
Given the vastness of New York’s welfare population and the less-than-robust local economy, the public workfare program may be not only the best response to a very difficult situation but a unique opportunity to accomplish essential work that unionization and civil service rules have priced out of reach. Of course, a program of this size has widespread problems of implementation: faulty record keeping, arbitrary terminations, an inadequate number of supervisors, inept assignments—such as placing non-English-speakers in clerical jobs—and, in office jobs, a growing risk of worker over-saturation and make-work. A vaunted requirement that recipients look for jobs before starting their workfare assignments remains largely unenforced. These problems need quick solution, before the administration expands WEP. And city hall can expect growing political problems, especially from municipal unions. The city maintains that it is not using welfare workers as a substitute for city labor, but WEP workers already outnumber city workers two to one in some buildings, and as the WEP population grows, that assertion may be harder to maintain. An effort is under way, abetted by some city unions, to organize the WEPs and demand city jobs. But the WEP concept is a legitimate one, and it should be vigorously defended.
And what of the McElraths? I caught up with Lisa several weeks after her WEP orientation, wandering back into her homeless hotel. Rhafel had been arrested three nights previously for “hustling,” Lisa said; she didn’t explain further. Lisa’s job assignment at Roosevelt Park had been short-lived. On the job, she stepped into a hole and hurt her leg. The city sent her by ambulance to Bellevue Hospital, even though she had walked back to the local Parks Department office after her injury. She has not been back to work since, despite a clean bill of health from her doctor. Her welfare case has now been closed, as she explained it, because Rhafel, who had applied for food stamps, had refused to work—an unlikely outcome, since their two welfare cases are independent of each other.
Lisa’s muddled understanding of her muddled affairs is typical of people dependent on public assistance. They may be a lost generation. Though she told me that she enjoyed her WEP job and wants to return, the chances that she will stick to a WEP assignment and then find and keep a private-sector job look slim. What will happen to the McElraths after the five-year time limit on welfare is anyone’s guess, but both are able-bodied, and the notion that working taxpayers should support them indefinitely is no longer acceptable.
Half a continent away, Wisconsin, which welfare gurus laud as the foremost reform laboratory in the country, takes a diametrically opposite approach to workfare. No New York City–style public jobs program for it. Instead, Wisconsin puts welfare recipients to work in private- and nonprofit-sector jobs. Visitors stream into the state to see the system in action—to learn about Wisconsin’s one-stop job centers, its diversion of applicants to non-welfare sources of support, and its so-called “pay-for-performance” model of workfare. Even the new federal law incorporates several of its reforms. Yet for all its successes, Wisconsin has had some disappointments, with serious implications for the adequacy of workfare as a tool of cultural renewal. And even the successes have only limited applicability to the inner-city populations that reformers worry about most, for they take place in rural areas where the scale of the welfare problem is minuscule compared to that of the South Bronx or Watts.
Wisconsin has been working at welfare reform longer than any other state. Between 1987, when Governor Tommy Thompson came into office vowing to stem the growing welfare crisis, and 1994, the state’s caseload dropped 23 percent, more than double the nation’s next largest decline. In some rural counties, the rolls dropped more than 70 percent over the seven years. However remarkable this may seem, it’s important to remember that the state’s robust economy, very different from New York’s, made much of the reduction possible. Many Wisconsin counties have virtually no unemployment; companies are desperate for workers. But though the rolls surely would have dropped on their own, they wouldn’t have dropped as far without the state’s radical changes in policy.
The big idea at the heart of Wisconsin’s reform is to get recipients off welfare fast—or, better yet, to dissuade applicants from coming on in the first place, a concept known as “diversion.” Welfare department planners meet with an applicant before she even applies for assistance to analyze her budget, consider alternative sources of support—such as WIC, Medicaid, or soon, no-interest government loans—and to drive home the reality of the welfare work requirement. Equally important, applicants must spend 60 hours looking for work before seeing their first check.
In rural areas, this strategy has produced remarkable results. During a two-week period this October in Fond-du-Lac County, a dairy and light-manufacturing county in the middle of the state and the site of the state’s most far-reaching welfare experiments to date, 16 people came into the county’s welfare office to apply for support; only two ended up doing so, having been proselytized by the county’s welfare workers to the new state religion of self-sufficiency. Much of Wisconsin’s welfare bureaucracy is possessed by an almost holy zeal to move people into employment.
If diversion fails, Wisconsin immediately throws recipients into a flurry of activity designed to place them in jobs. If the pre-application job search has produced no offers, the client must enroll immediately in a daily program of job-readiness training, community service, or highly focused short-term job training. In Fond-du-Lac, for instance, the county provides two- to six-week courses in such skills as welding, printing, and nursing assistance. The smaller counties also provide customized service for the required work component: welfare workers phone local employers looking for an opening that matches a recipient’s interests.
Wisconsin makes its job-readiness activities as job-like as possible with a “pay-for-performance” system. For every hour of unexcused absence from a job search program or a community service placement, a participant’s check is docked $4.25. Result: in Fond-du-Lac, almost a third of the county’s caseload opted to give up their welfare checks rather than participate in the intensely supervised job-readiness and workfare program. With predictable illogic, welfare advocates argue that this high rate of attrition shows that Wisconsin’s reforms aren’t working, as if the only acceptable reforms are those that keep people safely ensconced on the rolls.
Many welfare recipients, some of them migrants from large cities, are angry, too, about the reforms—just as angry as recipients in New York. I spoke with a middle-aged woman in the jobs center of Kenosha County, a reform showcase midway between Milwaukee and Chicago, who had been called in for quitting her telemarketing job after three days. “They make me sick—fuck them!” she spat out, after drawing heavily on a cigarette. “I do not understand why you would ask me to volunteer four hours a day and not pay me wages. It’s slavery. I refuse!” The woman, a former postal worker who wouldn’t say why she left her government job, is part of a large migration of inner-city Chicagoans who came to Wisconsin for its welfare benefits. Faced with the state’s new workfare regime, many are now returning to Chicago. “They are trying to enforce work in Chicago,” the woman explained, “but there’s so many welfare recipients that it’s hard to get them. It’s still easier to find loopholes there.”
In one of the most significant experiments for the new federal bill, two Wisconsin counties, Fond-du-Lac and Pierce, instituted a two-year time limit on welfare in January 1995. By October 1996, most Fond-du-Lac recipients were off the rolls, leaving only two people facing the mandatory cutoff in December. But after two years of getting the able-bodied off welfare, the county is left with a markedly changed clientele. More and more of those coming up to the mandatory cutoff in the months to come will be the truly dysfunctional. Some have mild mental illness or a low I.Q.; others, according to Roger Kowtz, a state project manager, “simply don’t have a clue.” When the county finds jobs for such individuals, they quickly get fired for absenteeism, tardiness, or recalcitrant behavior. While the 20 percent exemption from the federal five-year time limit, and the somewhat stricter exemption policy in Wisconsin’s new round of statewide reforms, will soften considerably the limits’ impact, the question of how to respond to the most dysfunctional segment of the population is one of the unanswered dilemmas of welfare reform.
Reporters who’ve trumpeted Wisconsin’s welfare success have based their stories on places like Fond-du-Lac or Kenosha. These successes are real—but they are of limited relevance to the nation’s urban areas. The numbers in Fond-du-Lac are microscopic: sure, the caseload fell by 64 percent between January 1994 and today, but in actual numbers it fell from a tiny 780 to an almost invisible 280. Moreover, the county’s welfare population has a different character from inner-city populations. Fond-du-Lac has few people with no employment history and even fewer third-generation welfare recipients.
For a more realistic picture of the challenges of urban welfare reform, drive just 100 miles south of Fond-du-Lac to Milwaukee, the only industrial city in Wisconsin, where reform has had a much rockier course, one little reported in the national press. With a welfare population of 23,600—60 percent of the state’s rolls—and an illegitimacy rate of 80 percent (the highest in the nation), Milwaukee has many of the same problems as Chicago, its neighbor on Lake Michigan, and New York.
Judging from the surface, you’d think Milwaukee’s new programs are no different from those of Wisconsin’s pioneering counties. Its four jobs centers are as clean and rationally organized as a corporate headquarters—blinking with computers, decorated in soothing mauves and pinks, and hung with cheerful cloth banners identifying the various services available to recipients. The contrast with the command center of New York City’s WEP program—the battered, graffiti-bedecked Office of Employment Services—is heartbreaking. The centers offer a level of customer service unimaginable in New York: when a test-taker during a vocational assessment exam complained that the coffee was cold, the supervisor immediately called on his walkie-talkie for a new thermos.
But beneath the trappings, the reality is quite different from Wisconsin’s showcase counties. There, entire county administrations embrace reform and compete with one another to produce the most spectacular results. Milwaukee, by sharp contrast, suffers from fractious welfare politics. The city and county have fought Governor Thompson’s reforms tooth and nail, arguing that they will increase child poverty. Local political leaders wouldn’t take responsibility for the reforms, so state authorities cobbled together a consortium of 15 community service agencies to operate the new programs. Some agencies won inclusion not because of their experience or competence—which they sorely lacked—but because they lobbied successfully for a piece of the training and subsidy pie. The result is sometimes chaos. Employers find people whom they have never heard of showing up on their doorsteps expecting to work, claiming to have been referred by one of the community service agencies. Employers’ calls to the agencies for assistance go unanswered. By comparison, the centralized approach of New York’s workfare program looks like a model of efficiency.
Milwaukee avoids the problems of a big government jobs program, like New York’s WEP, by putting workfare clients to work with nonprofit charitable organizations, such as soup kitchens or homeless shelters, or with the jobs centers themselves. But this solution has its own problems, as bad or worse than those of a government jobs program. In contrast to WEP supervisors, some of Milwaukee’s nonprofits cut absentee workfare workers an enormous amount of slack, not surprising from organizations that don’t usually favor tough welfare reform. And private nonprofit workfare doesn’t escape the make-work problem: welfare recipients empty the trash baskets in the county’s jobs centers four times a day and mechanically clean the same windows over and over again.
As agents of welfare reform, Milwaukee’s nonprofits range from the satisfactory to such woefully inept examples as the job-readiness class run by YWCA employee Oralann Caldwell in one of the city’s huge jobs centers. Caldwell, a tall woman with long black hair, permed bangs, and an abundance of turquoise jewelry, is trying to teach the class how to call employers about possible job openings. “Youse can put this down,” she announces, writing on the blackboard: “I am a very hard and consistant [sic] worker. I have very good people skills and highly motivated [sic].” Half of the girls in the room dutifully copy the phrases; the rest slump deeper in their chairs. “Or put this down,” she suggests, writing: “My nam [sic] is ____. I am a highly motivated and consistant [sic] worker with fast learning skills.” She is particularly proud of this one: it combines, she says, “two pitches in one.” When members of the class compose and read aloud their own pitches, Caldwell makes them worse. One bright-looking young girl suggests: “I am bilingual.” Caldwell’s emendation: “I have bilingual qualities.”
Mitchell Fromstein, chairman of Milwaukee-based Manpower, Inc., the nation’s largest staffing or “temp” agency, heard this story without surprise. “It makes my stomach hurt,” he responded. Fromstein has been a close observer of Milwaukee’s welfare efforts, and the experience has left him pessimistic. Manpower has had a contract with the state to bring 5,000 job listings a month into the county’s job center network, where welfare recipients and job seekers off the street can learn about them—this is full-employment Wisconsin, remember, where jobs go begging. Manpower did some assessments of welfare recipients’ job readiness for its own information. Based on what it found, the company decided not to get further involved in Wisconsin’s welfare reform effort. “I didn’t want to be carried out in a stretcher,” explains Fromstein.
Fromstein is an unusually authoritative judge of the challenges of welfare reform. His clients are just those businesses all welfare reform schemes expect to be the final destination of former welfare recipients. In addition, welfare reformers tout staffing agencies like Manpower as the magic solution to job placement for welfare clients, since such firms know the job market better than anyone else and have sophisticated assessment and training methods for placing people into jobs.
But what Fromstein says is troubling. “There is a big gap between the condition of the welfare population and job readiness,” he concludes. Only about 40 percent of welfare recipients really want to work, he believes. Moreover, Manpower found severe limitations in welfare recipients’ ability to think clearly. “Their cognitive skills are absent,” says Fromstein. “Their schooling is limited, and they don’t understand that at 9am the company opens and you’ve got to be there.”
Fromstein’s observations, echoed by employers across Milwaukee, point to a paradox of welfare reform: in itself, it is incapable of accomplishing its goals. Before welfare reform can succeed for a significant portion of the caseload, a far more basic revolution is necessary in the moral structure of families and communities. The cognitive deficiencies and lack of responsibility that Fromstein notes originate in miserable home environments and chaotic childhoods, years before an individual enters the workforce. No government or employer can change those conditions.
But in Milwaukee, a remarkable enterprise is meeting that challenge head-on, showing how to change a culture—as well as how much remains to be done. The program is part of no welfare reform plan, yet it cuts more directly to the core welfare problem than all of Wisconsin’s official programs combined.
Deborah Darden, a velvet-voiced former welfare mother, is conducting an all-out campaign to restore traditional values to Milwaukee’s troubled black community. Now the director of the Right Alternatives Family Service Center, a bare-bones day-care and adult education center in a north Milwaukee housing project, Darden conceived of her mission in the early nineties, when a group of friends began discussing how to respond to crime. Recalling what their grandparents had done differently to create stable families and communities, they drew up a list of 13 moral principles that once guided responsible adults. At the top was concern for children—and, above all, an awareness of adults’ behavior in front of them. The discussion gave birth to Darden’s Count Me In campaign. Members pledge to abide by the 13 principles and put a Count Me In decal in their window that signifies to the neighborhood: If my child is raising hell, you can come to my house and tell me about it. “People told us they were afraid to talk,” explains Darden, “and kids were acting up because they knew no one would say anything.”
Like the moralists of old, Darden aims to hold a mirror up to her community to show it its flaws. She has made public-service television announcements that skewer common destructive child-rearing practices. In one, a young girl in a silver lamé parka, full Tommy Hilfiger gear, and a bouffant hairdo, purrs at the camera: “My hair is always perfect, my nails are always done—I am divine, all of the time!” The camera pans down to two dirty children standing forlornly next to her, and the voice-over asks: “But what about your children?” In another ad, a woman screams at a child: “Your teacher tells me you’ve been swearing in class. Where’d you learn to speak that way?” The child answers in a very small voice: “From you, mommy.”
The morally charged satire cuts even deeper in the powerful skits Darden stages at her day-care center. Part preacher, part dramaturge, she portrays the behavior that is tearing the ghetto apart—everything from drugs to child neglect, from promiscuity to illegitimacy. Her target: the lies people tell themselves to justify their complicity in illegal and antisocial behavior. Her usual audience (and supporting cast) is a single-mother support group that meets weekly at her Family Service Center. The skits confront the women, 85 percent of whom are on welfare, with the unacknowledged consequences of their own behavior.
Darden has an uncanny ear for hypocrisy and selfishness. At a weekly support group last Halloween, she started by standing in the middle of the room and whining self-righteously: “I have my needs. I’m frustrated! I took these kids to McDonald’s; now these motherfuckers better leave me alone! I put a roof over they heads; that’s enough.” There ensued a discussion of what parents owe children. The women, ranging in age from barely 20 to middle-aged, spoke of leaving their children for days at a time when they used to take drugs, or of smoking marijuana around them.
The evening’s main event was a skit called “Yo Money”—your money—with women from the group as supporting players. It begins as Darden puts on lipstick in front of a mirror—imaginary, like all the props. She hears a knock on her door. Two people are on the stoop, shuffling nervously. She opens the door, and they start feverishly pitching a $40 book of food stamps, as Darden looks on impassively. “How much are you selling them for?” she asks coolly. “Forty dollars,” the girls stammer. “I don’t have $40,” Darden replies. “Here’s $20.” She hands them a white piece of paper with “YO MONEY” written across it in large letters. One of the girls grabs the paper; the other berates her for being such a pushover. Darden shuts the door, and the two girls take YO MONEY to a drug dealer and buy crack. They smoke their pipe voraciously, fighting over it, to roars of laughter from the audience.
After getting high, one girl asks, “Who TV is this?” The other answers, “Your sister’s.” “So what, does it have her name on it?” the first counters. In no time, they’re back at Darden’s door with the TV. “You don’t have to come in,” she says imperiously. They ask $100 for the set; she bargains them down to a much smaller sum, again paying with YO MONEY. The two crack-heads go back to the dealer and ask for some credit. He chastises them: “You know I never take credit, but you can give me some head”—an allusion to oral sex. That transaction presumably accomplished, the action returns to Darden’s house, where a friend comes by and asks where she got the new TV set. “I’m not telling,” Darden responds loftily. The two women settle down in front of the TV with a huge marijuana joint. “What is this?” Darden exclaims about the picture on the television. “Look at that—dope fiends! This is what makes our people look bad. I’m just embarrassed to be black.” Meanwhile, the joint goes back and forth, and Darden announces in her silkiest voice, “But there’s nothing wrong with taking a little hit.”
At the end of the skit, a passerby compliments the crack dealer on his nice new car.
Darden then walks back to the center of the room. “Guess what we’re talking about here,” she asks the group. “ ‘Yo money.’ Guess where that woman [who sold Darden the food stamps] took it? The dealer.” Then Darden starts mimicking the self-righteous TV watcher, who thinks she is above the lowly crack user. “But all I do is smoke a little weed; what’s wrong with that? If I smoke weed, I look cool, my eyes close real sexy-like, I say interesting things,” she whispers sultrily. The audience howls in appreciation. “But where’d I buy my dope from?” Darden responds in reproach. “Some drug man who made those other girls suck his penis.” The ultra-cool, velvet voice comes back again: “But I’m not like them; I’ve got a degree!”
Then Darden takes up a favored ghetto complaint: “But it’s the white man who’s trafficking these drugs in the community,” she pleads self-righteously. Again she responds: “But who distributes money to this pusher’s hands? You did! How is he able to survive without my money? Forget who brings it in. Who keeps it going?”
Finally Darden stops the colloquy and drives home the moral: “If I said to my friends, ‘I don’t think you should buy those food stamps,’ if a hundred doors said no, would food stamps have value in the community? We have to take a long look at what we’re doing and what’s going on here. If we didn’t provide a market for stolen goods, they wouldn’t be stealing. We are much more part of the problem than we’re willing to acknowledge. It’s not the drug addict’s money that’s keeping this going; it’s because I wanted something quick and easy.”
Then the stories start pouring in. One older woman says: “Deborah, you know how much I want a computer. The other day, a girl offered me a new computer with a printer for $30. But I kept thinking about ‘Yo Money.’ She was like: ‘Are you crazy, girl? This has everything!’” A younger woman tells of being called at work by a friend who said: “You get over here real quick: they’re selling $65 books of food stamps for $30.” The speaker didn’t go until after work. “The house was real nasty,” she recalls. “You couldn’t breathe, the place stunk so; the kids were dirty, running around—the woman was selling food stamps all day. I looked at those kids and just couldn’t do it.”
After each of these tales, Darden takes a Polaroid picture of the narrator and starts a big round of applause. Then a former addict says, “A friend of mine just bought a nice car for $30, with title deeds and everything, and I’ll be honest: I really need a car, and if someone offers me one, I’m going to take it.” Darden responds: “I respect your honesty, but my personal belief is, there’s suffering involved with that car. I don’t want to sound like a Goody Two-shoes, because there was a time when I would’ve bought it. But our children are dying in the streets.”
Before welfare reform can do much for that percentage of recipients unready to work, Darden’s crusade needs many more adherents. The most telling statistic out of Wisconsin is this: even as the state’s welfare rolls dropped precipitously, illegitimacy continued to climb. A perverse consequence of workfare, which exempts the mothers of children under a year old? Possibly. The head of the Manhattan Parks Department WEP program speculates that girls may be having lots of children now to get out of the work program, which exempts mothers with infants and toddlers. Indeed, the scariest words I heard out of Lisa McElrath’s mouth were: “If I had a child, they wouldn’t make me work.” If we are to avoid repeating the errors of previous efforts at social betterment, people like Lisa McElrath must hear the imperative not just to work but also to behave responsibly.