On Front Lines, a Struggle at Work
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 1997;
Third in a series of
"Welfare Reform Is Now!!!" warns a sign taped to the door of Angela Perkins's workplace, a welfare office in far Northeast Washington. Sometimes those words drip into Perkins's dreams, draw her nerves as taut as E-strings. Because welfare reform, one of the most ambitious social experiments in recent American history, isn't just now. It's here. It's bureaucrats such as 33-year-old Perkins, a $21,000-a-year "social service representative" in this sagging outpost of the District government.
In a cubicle behind hers, someone has fired up a scented candle against the peculiar odors to which this old building is inclined. Arrayed about her are empty work stations gunmetal monuments to municipal insolvency. In this understaffed milieu, Perkins has little time to plumb her clients' psyches or plot subtle motivational strategies. She has 598 cases, some in folders thicker than Russian novels, so old that generations of paper mites are interred within. Now, with only a few hours of welfare-reform training under her belt, she spends her days nudging the people behind the files toward self-sufficiency.
The idea that welfare dependence lies at the heart of America's inner-city crisis has evolved in recent years into an article of public faith. Last summer, Congress converted the popular consensus into a sweeping Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which ended welfare as an entitlement after six decades and compelled states to place increasing numbers of adult recipients into jobs or "work activities" or forfeit federal funds.
It's the job of Perkins and other bureaucrats to translate the philosophic intent of politicians into the rock-real exigencies of the inner city to be human bridges between Washington policymakers and America's poor. But here on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, Perkins isn't celebrating her new centrality. Being a bridge can sometimes break your back.
Like many of her 225 fellow caseworkers in the city government, the gentle, determined Perkins took this job to be a protector of the poor. Now she confronts daily what the law's architects have been generally spared: the human face of theoretical social engineering. "We've got lives in our hands," she says. "And I'm scared."
Anxiety and Decay
It's a frail infrastructure for the task ahead. About 66,000 welfare recipients live in the District more than in Nevada, Idaho and the Dakotas combined. By Oct. 1, the city must ease one-quarter of the adult recipients into work or employment programs or lose several million dollars in federal aid. The assignment is particularly difficult because the District, unlike the states, has no welfare clients in job-rich suburbs to cream off first before tackling the less tractable urban cores. Besides, when Perkins closes one case, she often sees a new one open sometimes a family seeking refuge in the District from nearby Maryland, where welfare changes are more exacting and less easy to game.
Beneath a bald fluorescent bulb, Perkins's fingers flit across a computer keyboard, conjuring up one of her cases. The fields of fact blooming onto the screen size of household, Social Security number, reported income are not, Perkins knows, to be mistaken for truth. Truth's better approximation may be in the puffy hands and gelid eyes that betray a heroin appetite or in a monotone that bespeaks depression.
Today, truth is in the tumult that is Cynthia Harris, bounding in with two little boys in rain slickers and a damp raft of required paperwork Pepco bills, Medicaid cards, scrawled testimonials from friends clutched in hands with chipped blue nails. At 37, Harris says, laughing, she's "a welfare pro."
In welfare reform, as in most campaigns of psychic adjustment, the young are the easiest to sway. Since the District's welfare reform clock officially started March 3, many of Perkins's teenage clients have nonchalantly accepted the new rules that require them to live with a parent or guardian and stay in school in order to collect a check. A few young women have gotten abortions or put newborns up for adoption in anticipation of getting a job.
As Harris's boys chew the collars of their raincoats, Perkins slaps down the Magna Carta of reform: the Individual Responsibility Plan, which all recipients must sign in agreeing to look for work. With the document is an assessment form on which they must enumerate their skills, education and career goals. After a few minutes, Harris hands back both forms, blank. "I didn't fill them out," she explains pleasantly, "because there's nothing I want to do."
Welfare reform presumes logical self-interest: You agree to look for work so your income won't be cut. But for some who sit across the desk from Angela Perkins, cause and effect is an elusive concept. Harris, who has relied on government help on and off since her days as a foster child, calls herself a "moment person": "I go by the moment because I don't know if the next day I'll be alive."
Perkins resolutely plows ahead.
You have to fill it out.
Oh-no-no, no indeedy.
You have to call and schedule the two-hour orientation at employment services.
I can't go. I need to be with my son. He's in therapy.
If he's disabled, Easter Seals will send a bus to your house, take him to day care while you're getting oriented.
My son can't be with other children.
Highly skeptical eyebrow raise.
Anyway, because of my phobia I can't ride the bus. . . .
To Harris, reform is an absurdist government exercise. "They move, then you're supposed to move, but it's all a masquerade," she says.
Perkins thinks such skepticism has been at least partially conditioned by the D.C. government, which for years punished only gently when clients shirked requirements. Reform, with its conceptual swerve from entitlement to obligation, demands a radical readjustment of bureaucratic culture. But the city has thus far provided caseworkers with exactly eight hours of formal training in the new law. Perkins had to cram at night with study sheets from her union to master the eye-glazing particulars.
Now she tries to convince Harris that the government means it: real rules that, if broken, will involve real money and affect real eating. What she doesn't say is that there's still room for clients to manipulate the system. Perkins's office has only one investigator for 4,000 cases. The city's low-tech computers can't contact other states or even other government agencies. Fraud is detected largely by adversaries' dropping a dime on each other or through a client's carelessness as when Harris mentions that her boyfriend doesn't live with her. Perkins promptly cuts off the food stamps that have been coming to Harris monthly in his name.
"One thing people don't realize is that most welfare recipients are smart," Perkins says privately. "They know the rules better than I do." It could be that Harris is right: that reform will be a masquerade. But if it isn't . . . Perkins looks at Harris's boys, the smaller one now crying over some unseen grief.
The D.C. employment services agency to which Harris has been referred can't be counted on to fill the void. Distinguished by the U.S. Labor Department as one of the country's least successful at finding people jobs, the agency recently made headlines for spending millions of dollars earmarked for job training on administrative expenses.
All Perkins can do now, as Harris rouses her sons with a promise of Oodles of Noodles for dinner, is to beat her hollow drum: Make an appointment in three days or be cut. But she intuits, even as she exhorts, that Harris will do nothing, and her boys will feel it in their stomachs.
"Happening so fast," she murmurs as she turns back to the screen. Another customer awaits.
The remaining workers aren't reveling in their luck. Perkins's modest salary has been cut because of the city's budget crisis. "Forget buying a house, replacing my old car," says this mother of a 6-year-old boy and wife of a law student. "If my family didn't help out, I couldn't make it. I'm barely making it now."
The neighborhood where most of Perkins's clients live is a reliquary of government relief efforts. In a different age, officials built housing projects shaded by trees, softened by tennis courts and swimming pools. Perkins's family has roots in the Great Society tradition that undergirded such relatively gentle ghettos. Her mother was a D.C. caseworker, her uncle a top welfare official in New York City.
"We were raised to give something back not to pull the ladder up behind us," Perkins says. But in her generation, the idea of how government should aid the poor has changed. Perkins is blunt in her belief that decades of guaranteed welfare have cheated some children: "No wonder kids find role models on the basketball court. How can a parent be a role model when she has no goals besides collecting a check?"
Yet it turns out that being "generous" to the poor issuing payments, perpetuating entitlement was relatively easy on government agencies. Being strict, changing attitudes instead of accommodating, is what prompts a bureaucracy to break a sweat or break the rules. Sociologists following welfare reform in Indianapolis and other cities have found that sympathetic caseworkers often protect noncompliant clients from sanctions, subverting reform.
Not that most D.C. caseworkers seem dangerously compassionate. More like dangerously depressed. Many have inhaled the invective of clients who believe that the caseworkers themselves, in a fit of pique, wrote the new law that's messing up their lives. For those who care, as Perkins does, a worse predicament is not having the resources to help the clients who want help.
"They tell us to paint the house, then they take the ladder," one of her colleagues observed to cheers at a recent union meeting. "Then they take the brush and the paint. Then they take our arms and legs. Then, an hour later, they come back angry, saying, `Why haven't you painted this house?' "
The demoralized leading the demoralized: not ideal, motivationally speaking. But the flip side is survivor solidarity. Wry laughter is the undermusic of Perkins's workplace. What can you do but laugh when, in the waiting room, a man raising two daughters tires of his own rant against reform about being pushed to get a job when "the real streets" offer so few and chooses a less bootstrappy way to make it in welfare's new world: Forgoing his appointment, he tucks a newspaper photographer's high-tech camera under his coat and high-tails it out the door.
A Mother's Concern
The doughnut holes that Perkins's boss brought in today prove inadequate consolation. Perkins will worry the rest of the day not about whether Gregg will get a job and get off welfare, but whether Gregg's two girls will bed down on a curb tonight.
Perkins's husband, Derrin, calls his wife's job a birth-control pill: So many troubled souls plop themselves down at her desk that Angela shrinks from bringing another life into the world. Only 10 of her clients left the rolls to take a job last year. But as welfare reform gets going, she tries to suspend disbelief, to be optimistic. Ten isn't zero, after all.
Think of the recent phone call from one client: Angie, you're not gonna believe this! I'm calling from the councilman's office! He hired me! Think of the other former welfare mothers who now drop in proffering business cards and effusing pride. And think of those clients with slim files and open smiles, like the new enrollee now appraising Perkins's champagne-colored acrylic fingertips as they whisk down one of the 31 forms it takes to sign up for public aid.
Perkins's fingers stop now where they often stop lately. Where client Sharron Dark feared they'd stop.
"Sharron? You didn't identify your son's father."
Of all the disclosures impelled by welfare reform, the most delicate is the one that requires recipients to identify the fathers of their children, so the government can try to collect child support. "Guys treat babies like cars," Perkins tells her clients. "Once the newness wears off, it's over. You have to protect your child."
Sometimes her clients would like to comply but can't they know only a nickname or a pager number no longer in service. Other times, they resist. Turn in the father, and the government may get money, but you'll say goodbye to the Christmas presents, the Pampers, the occasional cash. And say hello, in some cases, to fury.
This time, Perkins's expectant gaze works its magic. Dark, 27, gives it up: the father's name, his neighborhood, an emphatic yes to the question, "Is he able to work?" But Dark doubts honesty will bring reward. She ignored the father's objections and reported him to a caseworker two years ago, she tells Perkins. But the child-support office let it slide.
By Perkins's gut-level gauge of employability, Dark scores pretty well. There are job holders in her immediate family her mother works two jobs. Dark herself was a medical assistant before being fired last year; she still reads her textbooks, fearful of forgetting the definition of "leukocyte." And she has not yet entombed her dreams: of seeing Paris, of moving herself and her son out of the jam-packed apartment where Dark has lived since she was 7 years old.
But Perkins also observes that system failures have dulled Dark's desire. Dark dejectedly recounts her recent participation in the city's employment program for food stamp recipients: "They didn't care. They just handed us The Washington Post. That's it. I do that at home."
Still, Perkins praises and prods and issues the requisite get-to-work instructions, which she knows Dark will carry out. And the two women linger a moment, chatting about their 6-year-old boys. Dark inspects the model of working woman-ness before her: the spectator pumps, the modulated voice, the wedding ring a thing Dark longs someday to wear herself.
Perkins, meanwhile, offers Dark the best help she has: "Sharron, good luck. Really."
Angela Perkins neither celebrates nor mourns. She keeps doing her job does it, her work evaluations attest, better than most. She heeds her superiors' pleas for patience: their vows that soon, soon there will be more caseworkers to share the load, more funds for client services, new classes on managing job stress. But deep down she hopes that by the time reform's zero hour arrives, she will have found another way to serve her social conscience, perhaps as a D.C. parole officer. Same unglamorous working conditions but, she hopes against experience, better tools for lifting up lives.
Yes, she'd like to lead her welfare clients to workaday middle-classdom. But for now, at least, the keys to success to client self-sufficiency are not really in her hands. In a starker way than politicians perhaps intended, the hope and burden reside with the poor themselves.
With Sharron Dark, who attends a job-readiness "evaluation" at the employment agency, where a worker confides, "We're totally confused here," and instructs her to fill out a form listing five job contacts a week. That requirement, Dark's neighbors have already discovered, can be fictionalized with impunity, since the city lacks the manpower for a truth squad.
With Cynthia Harris, her voice rising over the squeals of her sons as they combat marauders in an electronic game. "Life has hurt me so much, I don't feel anything the system does to me," she says. "What happens to the kids I leave up to the wisdom of the Lord."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company