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Lost on the Road to Reform

By Janet Schrader
Sunday, May 11 1997; Page C01


When President Clinton signed the new national welfare legislation in late August, some lawmakers and many advocates for the poor decried the law. They painted a bleak picture of families living on the streets and children going without food. At the time, I thought they were overreacting. But now that Northern Virginia is one year into welfare reform, I'm beginning to think that maybe the alarmists were right.

Government reports and some media accounts would have us believe that welfare reform is going great. But, like beauty, success is in the eye of the beholder. If success is measured in a decreasing number of public assistance cases, then welfare reform is certainly succeeding. But if success is measured in client self-sufficiency, then the experience of my caseload suggests we have a way to go.

Statistics for Northern Virginia show that even before welfare reform took effect, 26 percent of welfare recipients were spending six months or less on public assistance. Another 49 percent took between seven and 30 months to become self-sufficient. Only 25 percent of recipients remained on assistance for three years or more. What happens to this last group will be the real test of welfare reform. It is easy to take credit for placing people in jobs who would likely find them anyway, especially in a healthy economy; it is much harder to deal with hard-core unemployed who have all sorts of aptitude and attitude problems, in an economy with few jobs for low-skill workers.

Of the long-term recipients I've seen in my three years as a case worker, some truly are comfortable staying at home and do not want to work. And they know how to work the system. Others are not devious, but they are defeatist: They may never have been tapped for previous welfare-to-work employment programs and, because of poor health or little education or feelings of inferiority, never bothered to look for work on their own. Their attitude is: "No one will ever hire me, so why bother to look?"

Then there are the people with severe limitations that make it difficult or impossible for them to compete in the job market. Some are illiterate and incapable of even completing a job application. Others, like several women in my caseload, applied for jobs but were never hired. Their reading and writing ability was quite low, so I referred them to the Department of Rehabilitative Services to be tested for learning disabilities. The tests showed instead that the women were retarded.

A person need not be officially labeled retarded to be difficult to place. One of my clients was found to be intellectually slow but with an IQ above 70, which is the line that divides low-functioning from retarded. This client's former case manager wrote in the case notes: "She (the client) needs things explained many times and in different ways to make sure she understands."

Recently, several of my clients were sent to the Adult Education Learning Center for career assessment tests, which are designed to determine a job seeker's vocational aptitude and interest. Clients take the test on a computer, and a counselor told me one woman was unable to take the test because she couldn't work the computer mouse. Other women who have taken the assessment test have been able to point and click, but the counselor said some of the questions seemed difficult for them. "The test seems to presume a level of competence higher than we're seeing," the counselor said.

In addition to intellectual capability, there is the attitude factor. Some clients suffer from what I call "chronic immaturity." This kind of behavior includes quitting jobs when the supervisor does something you don't like. Getting into noisy disagreements, even fights, with other employees. Failing to show up for work or call in. In other words, acting impulsively without regard for the consequences.

It is important, though, to distinguish between emotional immaturity and emotional disorders – that is, mental illness. Several months ago I referred three women to the city's Mental Health Services for psychiatric evaluation. All were found to be suffering from some form of depressive, anxiety or personality disorder severe enough to render them unable to seek or sustain employment for at least three to six months. One of those diagnosed with anxiety and depressive disorder is also one of those who was found to be retarded.

Add to this list of barriers to employment drug and alcohol addiction for some and HIV infection or other chronic illness for others, and you have some idea of why many of these women have been unable to leave the welfare rolls.

As more and more educated, skilled, reasonably mature women find jobs and leave welfare, caseworkers will be left with only the long-term dependent to employ. That will be a mighty challenge.

Imagine calling an employer and saying: "I have a woman around [age] 40 with no diploma or GED, with limited work experience in fast food or housekeeping, who really wants to work but who has had some problems with alcohol abuse in the past and whose teenage sons are getting into trouble, causing her to be called to school or court, which might affect her ability to get to work or to get to work on time. But other than that she's good to go." And I would love for that employer to say, "Send her right over." Such a scenario would happen only in my dreams.

The job of caseworkers is to find ways to raise the abilities of clients to meet employers' standards, But there are limitations. You can't raise a person's IQ 20 points. You can't raise a literacy level from first grade to eighth grade in six months. You can't change 30 years of behavior in two weeks.

And the reality is that welfare clients are competing with many other qualified and overqualified job seekers in a market where employers want people who look good, act right, speak well and know just about everything. Even clients who have successfully completed training programs are not guaranteed a spot in the workforce. They must jostle with other applicants in an employment area where an opening for an entry-level receptionist position can bring 200 or more resumes. Sometimes even recent high school graduates are preferred over welfare recipients because the graduate is considered to be moldable and doesn't have children who could get sick.

If employers do hire welfare recipients, they must want them to succeed as much as the employees must want to. Take the experience of one of my clients. She is young with no diploma or work experience, and she has an infant with sickle cell anemia, a painful illness that requires frequent hospitalizations. Despite these barriers, her attitude has taken a quantum leap from her previous stint on my caseload about 18 months ago. She was hired to work in the kitchen at a nursery school. Her supervisor was enthusiastic about her. She was diligent about her work, but she sometimes had to miss days when her child got sick. She had told me that her employer was understanding. But then, all of a sudden, she was terminated for attendance problems and poor work quality. What happened?

She said she was told she missed too many days and her work wasn't good enough. "But why didn't they tell me if I was doing something wrong?" she asked. "If they didn't like it, why couldn't they show me how they wanted it done?" I subsequently discovered the missing piece from this puzzle: The woman who had hired my client no longer worked at the nursery school, and the new supervisor apparently wasn't willing to work with her.

In the end, the real issue in this welfare experiment is not welfare; it is work. Although the Northern Virginia economy is booming, there is a shortage of employment for unskilled workers. In our current high-tech, high-intelligence economy, there is a great emphasis on problem-solving skills, social skills, education and credentials. I have an abundance of clients whose only work experience is some housekeeping and maybe food service, yet there just aren't enough housekeeping and food service jobs to go around.

Those menial jobs that do exist are all too often part-time and low-wage, so that a person needs several just to get by. Most menial jobs pay anywhere from $4.75 to $6.50 an hour, yet people are said to need at least $7 an hour just to survive in Northern Virginia. What if the job or the employee is not worth that hourly rate to an employer? Are we supposed to pay people according to the number of people in their household, rather than pay them according to their level of skill and experience? And if they merit a low salary that doesn't meet their needs, should they just not eat for two weeks out of the month?

Of the five women I signed into the new welfare program in April 1996, only one is even close to successfully employed. She started working for a department store full-time, $6.50 an hour, in June and was off welfare by July 31, 1996. But even her success is being threatened. A few weeks ago, she called to tell me that her hours are being reduced and if she loses any more time, she may not be able to pay the rent. Fortunately, she is not waiting for disaster to happen; she is applying elsewhere.

Of the remaining four, one has been temping in offices for about six months, but her assignments range from a day to a week; she has not yet earned enough monthly to leave the welfare rolls. Another who came into the program with medical problems, no diploma or GED, and a child who had been acting up, has done community service work for about six months. Her prognosis for success may be good, since she recently sent her problem child to live with the father and began a training program to get skills and a GED.

The third, an immigrant from Ecuador (but now a U.S. citizen), is working as a nanny and housekeeper for a family, but she is still receiving assistance and is not close to earning enough to be self-reliant. Having had no success in finding employment with businesses, she is looking for another private employer to supplement her income.

The fourth has had two jobs in the past year, each lasting roughly a month. The first was a cleaning job with a small business that laid off all its employees when it was unable to pay them and the second was a retail job that ended in a layoff when there wasn't enough business.

The plight of these women concerns me because they have already exhausted 12 months of benefits. If they remain on assistance through next April, their benefit eligibility will terminate April 30, 1998. In May 1998, they will neither receive a welfare check nor food stamps.

At this point, I could make an impassioned plea for extending and expanding hardship exceptions, which allow a person to continue receiving benefits after her two-year limit is up. (Those exceptions extend only to persons living in areas of high unemployment or finishing a training program.) But I don't think exceptions are the answer.

Welfare reform is supposed to be about working to earn one's own living. My question is: as a society, what are we going to do with the people who are willing, even eager to work, but have low intellectual ability, poor health or emotional problems? What jobs are we going to create in our new knowledge-based workplace to allow those people some measure of self-support and self-esteem?

Janet Schrader is a welfare caseworker in Alexandria. The views expressed in this article are solely hers and not those of her agency.

* EDUCATE FIRST

From Teresa Sweeney, executive director of the local Literacy Volunteers of America:

If you want to decrease the number of people going on welfare and quickly move those on welfare off, you must educate them. Almost 50 percent of adults on welfare do not have a high school diploma or GED. Of those adults, 65 percent spend more than five years on welfare. Conversely, 68 percent of those on welfare with a high school diploma or GED become self-sufficient within two years.

There is a critical shortage of adult education programs, yet the majority of state welfare reform plans do not address that lack. Furthermore, many plans do not count participation in most adult education programs as part of the approved "work activities" a recipient must fulfill during the two years before benefits are cut.

At the moment, the welfare law says that up to 20 percent of working adults can count "vocational educational training" as work. Most states are demanding specific work-related courses. This causes a surge in demand for classes that do not exist, and the forced departure of current students to fit the work requirements.

The connection between low-literacy skills and some of our greatest social problems is so obvious, I'm amazed there is any disagreement over the solution.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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