Reaching Up for the Bottom Rung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 23, 1997; Page A01
Second in a series of occasional articles
The red metal doors sweep open, and into a cinder-block classroom in Northeast Washington sails 20-year-old Deena Sutton: spike heels, Victoria's Secret body lotion, jeans so tight you can count the chump change in her back pocket. She's got a beeper on one hip and, on the other, an emblem of welfare's new age: a laminated tag reading "Janitorial Training Student #39."
Goodwill Industries' first janitor class of 1997 two weeks of scrubbing and social skills is under way. Sutton plops down at a back-row desk next to a gaggle of long-necked vacuum cleaners. With a sigh, she unpacks her school supplies. Pink hairbrush, Mountain Dew, asthma inhaler, pencil. She's ready, sort of, to become the queen of clean.
By the watch of instructor Tony Cutro, Sutton is late. But in the immense social experiment called welfare reform, she and her classmates are right on time. The imperative passed by Congress last year demands that states put at least one-quarter of assistance recipients into "work activities" by 1998 a requirement incompatible with long training courses that teach poor women sophisticated skills. Across America, a new welfare-to-work philosophy is ascendant: Grow up, get real, get a job any job at all.
Government studies suggest that crash courses such as Goodwill's are relatively successful at doing, in miniature, what welfare reform now seeks to do on a broad scale: help poor people get jobs, if not necessarily jobs that lift them out of poverty. What statistics can't convey is the psychic struggle at the base of this social engineering. To glimpse that, it helps to sit in this basement classroom in an industrial strip near East Capitol Dwellings, the city's largest housing project. Here, the ethos of the working world collides hard with the ethos of street and defeat. Here, a battle is being staged for the souls of students like Deena Sutton.
The envoy of the American work ethic is, in this instance, the ponytailed Cutro, who now reads the 39 faces before him. Sutton is dozing, her parka draped over her eyes, which makes her an easy parse. She's with nine other women compelled here by caseworker fiat or fear of coming changes in the welfare system. The women sit amid middle-age men out of luck or out of Lorton, young men in down coats, two self-styled ministers and a drag queen in search of a day job. This diverse lot has one thing in common: Not one dreamed, growing up, of cleaning other people's toilets for a living.
"I am here to tell you, forget yourself!" Cutro steps out into the psychological traffic. In his audience are drug users; a woman pummeled by her lover; a young beauty unable to read labels saying that ammonia and bleach, if mixed, can be fatal. But welfare reform cares only a little about why you're on the dole. It cares more about getting you off. "Everyone here may need a break," Cutro says. "But employers aren't looking to help you; they wonder whether you can help them. You can. Work together. Do more than you're paid to do. And I promise, your life will change."
Goodwill's placement office will help students find jobs. But first they must wake up and look at themselves through the mirror of the working world. Come every day on time no excuses, Cutro insists. Be honest and responsible or leave. "You'll have keys to offices and homes and nothing to stand on but your reputation," he says. "So earn it."
As notes are slyly slipped from desk to desk, as someone's cell phone plays "Hail to the Redskins," Cutro introduces his leitmotif: If you're in this just for a paycheck, you'll dead-end at minimum wage, get discouraged and find yourself again unemployed. "Flatline," he warns, "and you die." To rise out of poverty, you have to care. "Open yourself up to this job," he entreats as Sutton rouses herself from sleep. "Open yourself up to loving work."
A Cycle of Dependence
Deena Sutton waves her scented hand. "It's all real nice we're watching movies and little stuff like that. But I ain't learned nothing yet. How am I gonna get a job?"
The temperature is rising in this under-ventilated basement. Fascination with custodial niceties is plummeting. Who cares how many bacteria fit on the head of a pin? Sutton and her back-row consorts mimic the drag queen, who covets a hospital cleaning post. They titter at a man with a head scar who walks 90 minutes to get here because he can't afford the bus when he proudly describes cleaning a boiler until it gleamed. Listening to the snickers, one older welfare mother clucks to another: "The way the young folks talk trash! Imagine what they do at home!"
Imagine: Deena Sutton all dreams, wit, looks depressed in the little room she rents by the week. Going to bed at 5 p.m. not because she's weary from the high life but because she doesn't have food for dinner. This is a picture the D.C. native works hard to prevent her classmates from seeing. But her life has long been improvisational.
Her mother, a Korean immigrant, split when Sutton was a child. Her father's family compensated at first. Then the foster care system took over. "Why would some random foster family love me," she says of that experience, "when my own blood family didn't?" At 16, she quit a Maryland foster home, and high school, too, for the warmer embrace of a D.C. gang. At 18, she had a baby girl, Tiara.
The father was supportive, as few men whom Sutton knows are. But then he was in prison, his supplements to her $312 monthly welfare check gone. Alone, she couldn't pay her rent. Public housing's waiting list was thousands of names. Unwilling to go to a shelter, she floated from relative to friend, losing her welfare check when she could no longer prove she lived in the District.
There are three main predictors of long-term welfare dependence: becoming an unwed teenage mother; dropping out of high school; and never having worked. Sutton is 3 for 3. But instead of trying to get back on the dole, Sutton, a survivalist, heeded rumors of welfare's demise and decided to adjust. First she considered drug dealing, her neighborhood's best-paying job. What stopped her was the thought of 2-year-old Tiara visiting both parents in prison. "I want to do better for Tiara than my mother did for me," she says. She has entrusted the child to a more affluent friend while she tries to make that dream real.
Cutro can teach the technical aspects of entry-level janitor work in a flash. His real labor is transmitting his faith in the meritocracy that took him from sweeping New York streets to running a modest string of cleaning companies. Now he drives his Mercedes from Virginia to the inner city to preach that if you scrub a toilet well, you can advance to carpet cleaning, make supervisor, get a place with a patio in the suburbs. To which Sutton and classmates posit a counter-belief: that the Powerball lottery offers a better shot at the middle class than pushing a broom.
Social science can't wholly disabuse them. Studies by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. and other think tanks indicate that those who get jobs after work-preparation programs tend to have higher incomes than they had when on public assistance, but not by much. Federal studies show particularly dismal income potential for women without high school diplomas women like Sutton.
Against bleak odds, Cutro asserts hope that seems both irrational and psychologically crucial. A veteran employer of the disadvantaged, he doesn't get hep, doesn't get down. He aims up speaking of "synchronization" and "analogous scenarios" to students who read, on average, at sixth-grade level. Faced with resistance (say, the young man snoring through his ski mask), he crafts team-building devices. "You are your brother's keeper," he tells the class. "If the guy next to you falls asleep, poke him."
Cutro now flourishes a newspaper classified section: Locally, there are more entry-level janitor jobs than any other low-skill profession. Some Goodwill graduates may get government or union jobs $11 or more an hour, with family health insurance. But a more common fate lurks outside the classroom's red doors, where a "real" janitor is mopping Goodwill's floors. After two years on the job, she is paid D.C.'s minimum wage, $5.75 an hour.
Cutro's philosophy, in this hard place, is to forget that you're emptying the sanitary napkin bins for low wages. Instead, celebrate a job well done. His mesmeric rap is today punctuated by beeper bleats from Sutton's hip. It's the street world, propounding other ways to live. She watches the clock and sighs.
Getting Down to Cleaning
Loose clothes and crepe soles have been advised. This morning, as usual, Sutton put on heels and crammed her size 9 body into size 5 jeans. The Too Fresh Crew, as the team has dubbed itself, is not the kind of crew with which she generally associates. "This is embarrassing. I ain't touching the toilet all nasty like that," she pouts, pulling her shirt over her nose.
To reach students like Sutton, Cutro needs to redirect the peer pressure buffeting the basement. He deputizes motivated students to help. There's Robert Uzzell, bent on sending his daughter to college. There's 33-year-old Theresa Williams, on welfare since 14. She wants to set an example for her four boys. There's Earl Nelson, who says his last job was selling crack at East Capitol Dwellings for $1,000 a day. A bullet in his lung and a wreck of jail time behind him, he has come here, he says, "in search of an honest eight."
And then there's Sutton's crew leader, DeLloyd DuBoise, who sets a clipboard on his yellow cleaning cart and deliberates. He's no longer a recovering addict in what he calls an "independent-living" home. He's a supervisor. He wants to be tough, for Sutton is undermining the tentative enthusiasm of the collective. But he also wants to be fair. The urinals are pretty nasty. "Okay," he decides. "You can do the mirrors."
She brightens. "Mirrors I'm all about mirrors. Let's go!"
Toilet seats smack up, trash cans flip over, bristles meet floor. Sutton struggles against her denim to clamber onto the sink counter and reach the top of the mirror. She and her fellows shine, sweep, slosh, mop, then fly giddy and breathless out of the bathroom to await the judgment of Inspector Cutro.
Who orders them right back in.
Sutton bridles. By her clock, it's time for a Newport. She starts to leave. "What you gonna do, fire me?" she snaps at DuBoise. "I'm not getting paid."
Surveys of employers suggest that low-skill workers are more likely to lose jobs because of conflicts with bosses and co-workers than because of clumsiness with a sponge. But in this case, Cutro's reverse peer pressure kicks in: Sutton's classmates aren't with her. She stomps her feet, collapses against the wall and then returns to the men's room. Cutro has noticed this about Sutton. She whines but hasn't missed a day, except the time he kicked her out for arriving late. She may do puzzles during a quiz, but she'll also answer the questions under her breath.
"I have a hustling soul," she likes to say. But her dreams, in her rented room, hew to lines straight and modest as a church pew. In one dream she hears her daughter tell her little friends: "That's my mama. My mama works."
The pace in the men's room is slower now. DuBoise double-checks the underlips of toilets. Flip the mop every third time, he advises a crew-mate cleaning the floor. Then, finally: "On a scale of 1 to 10, you get a 10-plus! You got it tight." The Too Fresh Crew trades high-fives muffled by rubber gloves.
"Our bathroom is bumping!" Sutton whoops. For an instant, before her pose snaps back into place, her arms dance over her head.
A Mother's Progress
If the welfare mothers translate their buffer lessons into jobs, the District will provide subsidies for transportation and child care and offer other bridges to work. But such bridges may have trapdoors. Take the 31-year-old woman now throttling the buffer. Karen Sumter recently took the father of three of her children to court the city's welfare plan intends to cut the benefits of those who don't try to enlist fathers in child support. After that, she says, he vanished altogether from their lives. Not getting the money he was ordered to pay she'll live with that, already has. Harder to live with is the heartbreak of her 11-year-old boy.
Against large fears and histories of passivity, Cutro venerates small successes. Hail to Robert Uzzell for phoning around for jobs during break instead of heading out back to smoke! Plaudits to Earl Nelson, who one snowy morning made it to class an hour early! And now kudos to Karen Sumter! She is lifting up on the buffer handle, and the machine is actually going right, purring across the floor. Sumter's supervisor lifts an eyebrow at Cutro: "Girl is good!"
Tonight, Sumter will go home to an apartment with only one bed for her and four children. But at this moment, in Cutro's asylum, her bowed head hides a smile.
Interviewing Technique Silky pantsuits, laundered polo shirts, gold-plate tie-pins: The Too Fresh Crew has dressed the part for today's mission, prepping for interviews. Indeed, even the usual class fussing sounds different. A dispute breaks out over whether wearing a suit to a janitor-job interview makes you look eager or uppity. "The brother's point is well taken," says one Lorton alumnus of another. "However, I would like to differ. ... "
Sutton glowers at the blank application everyone is supposed to complete for Goodwill's placement office. President Clinton has proposed tax incentives for businesses that hire the disadvantaged, but Sutton's optimism doesn't overbrim.
Her hand shoots up. "How can I fill this out when I have nothing to say? I never worked. No one's going to want someone like me." She is advised to develop a winning attitude. She suggests an alternative strategy. "Can I lie?"
Cutro believes that down deep, Sutton wants to give up the code of what students call "survival city." He hopes she'll find a supportive employer who will show her another way to live. "If she gets that," he says privately, "she can make it. If she doesn't ... " He leaves the future unspoken.
As the reality of an impending job search closes in, Sutton's classmates are as distressed as she is. How to get to an interview at Dulles Airport, which seems like North Dakota if, like most here, you have no car. How to survive on what you are likely to earn if, like Karen Sumter, you have four children. Even if she made $6 an hour, she'd have to work seven days a week to see the other side of the poverty line. She wonders how prospective employers will reach her when she can't afford a phone.
Now, in a mock interview, silver-haired Ricardo Southerland is offered the minimum wage. "With all my experience?" he howls. "I'm going to fly right out of this chair!" An Army veteran with a pristine police record shouldn't shuffle for crumbs!
For almost two weeks, Cutro has been preaching patience and deferred gratification, holding on to the job another day. Can Southerland extract pride not from the size of his paycheck or the status of his job, but from within from the quality of the work he does? Sutton stares. This is her drama, too.
"Is there room for advancement?" Southerland asks. "Because if there is, I'd consider that." Sweat glistens on his brow. The alternatives aren't pretty. He decides to show the employer what he can do. "So there is room for advancement?" he says with a grimacing smile. "Then you, sir, have found your man!"
A Celebratory End
Now, for the illiterate, Cutro reads the test questions aloud.
Sutton is sick. She didn't study last night, she brags; instead, she hit the Hennessey and champagne hard. But as she wrestles with questions about baseboard dusting and germ eradication, the nonchalance drains from her face. She loves her daughter. She'll try to love any job that will give Tiara a better life than she had. She marks, erases, marks again. The next day, as go-go music cranks and the custodial commencement begins, she learns her exam scores are among the highest in the class.
The mood, all around, is merry. Chicken wings and bundt cakes are demolished. The drag queen and a classmate dance the Bird. One of the ministers prays for his fellow students' futures, while Sutton takes on the older men in a game of spades. The winner, it is laughingly agreed, "gets a really bumping job!"
All but five of the 39 starting students have stayed with the program. As graduates exchange job-search plans and pager numbers, there is, ever so provisionally, the possibility of loving the idea of work.
But Cutro watches the scene silently from the side of the room. He knows that from this cultural crossroads winds a rocky path one his students will travel not as the Too Fresh Crew, but alone.
"Remember, don't flatline," he implores as the crew tramps out to find the future. "If you flatline, you die."
A month later, Goodwill's placement office is working the phones for some graduates; others already are on the job. Former drug dealer Earl Nelson is cleaning embassy staff cars at $6.50 an hour his first honest eight in years with the financial struggle that implies. Ricardo Southerland is part-timing at a liquor store, at a few dimes above minimum wage. Theresa Williams is applying for union jobs at luxury hotels and crossing her fingers.
But many graduates haven't succeeded enough, yet, to hope. Karen Sumter stays at home as welfare's clock hands move toward cutoff. And Deena Sutton, broke and alone, learns a truth her jeans tried to tell her, a truth she wanted badly not to know. She's three months pregnant.
She applies for a job at Children's Hospital. She goes home to vomit and worry.
A second-trimester abortion costs $355 she doesn't have. A baby the government might not support costs more.
She longs to close her eyes, "just sleep and sleep and sleep." But she can't. In her rented room, in welfare's new era, hard trade-offs are coming fast.
Why Welfare-to-Work Programs Don't Work Wonders
Why is the welfare-to-work task so tough? Rigorous data on the personal characteristics of welfare recipients are elusive, but research by the federal government, think tanks and universities offers clues.
Almost half are high school dropouts.
Half of long-term recipients have never held a legitimate job.
Nearly one-third call their health "fair to poor" for their age group.
In surveys, more than half report a history of domestic abuse.
From 5 to 20 percent acknowledge substance-abuse problems.
In surveys, more than one-quarter describe themselves as depressed.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company