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Welfare As I Know It: A Virginia Caseworker Tells How Her Clients' Lives Are Already Changing

By Janet Schrader
Sunday, August 25 1996; Page C01


TACKED TO the cloth partition of my cubicle, directly above my welfare policy manual, is a commentary on welfare reform by Paul Offner, former legislative assistant to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In his essay, Offner questions whether states are up to the task of putting welfare recipients to work, because "welfare reform depends on large bureaucracies of poorly paid caseworkers and record keepers, whose track record is mixed at best. If we expect miracles from them, we'll be disappointed."

Funny that Offner should lay the blame on us caseworkers. From where we sit, it seems like it's the policy makers who are confused about what the welfare world looks like, and what it will take to change it.

I should know. As a caseworker in Virginia, I've been grappling for months with the kinds of changes that the rest of the nation will soon face as it struggles to reform its welfare system.

Virginia's policy, laced with many of the same elements found in the new federal law, requires that anyone receiving welfare start moving toward self-sufficiency by either finding a job or preparing themselves for the day when they can. This may be the best of all possible worlds – getting people to support their own families – but it does not always operate according to script. Like fairy tales, welfare reform theory presumes a happy ending: She got a job, got off welfare and lives happily ever after. Occasionally, I find myself lulled into that story line. But getting a job and attaining self-sufficiency are not the same. What concerns me is welfare recipients' long-term ability to provide for their families – to keep a job, find another quickly if the initial job ends in a layoff or termination; to be able to get a second job if the first is only part-time or doesn't pay enough, to be able to handle a financial setback without going under. Real self-sufficiency requires not only job skills, but initiative, determination, energy, maturity and an understanding of the world of employment and employers.

A few of my clients have gone from the absolute bottom of drug addiction and homelessness to self-sufficiency in two years. (They were also assisted by a corps of social workers.) But others are not faring as well and 24 months may not be enough time for them. Here are a few scenes from the welfare drama in Virginia that have led me to this conclusion.

On a Monday morning in late April, about 20 women assemble in a conference room for an orientation on the state's new welfare law, which has just taken effect in Northern Virginia. Some of the women have just applied for AFDC benefits, others have been receiving public assistance for years. This morning, they will learn that their benefits are temporary (24 months); that they must sign an agreement of personal responsibility in which they agree to abide by the rules of the new program; that they will receive no additional benefits if they give birth to another child while receiving AFDC; that they must search for a job in the next 90 days and that they must participate in 20 to 32 hours of community service per week for six months if they fail to find a job.

I am giving the welfare reform presentation this morning and I've decided to use transparencies and an overhead projector. That way, the grim and sometimes angry faces in the crowd will be focused on the writing on the wall instead of me.

When I get to the part about community service work, I give an example: "For instance, you might be asked to work in the library shelving books."

This notion of community work experience gets the most mixed reaction. A woman in the audience comments loudly, "You mean we have to work for nothing?"

"No," I clarify, "you're getting your AFDC benefits and food stamps."

She mutters again that community service amounts to working for nothing. Others, not so vocal, nod in agreement.

I point out that service work can be a way to get on-the-job training that wouldn't be available otherwise. It is also a way to meet people, to network and to show off your skills. Some remain unconvinced, a few seem delighted by the prospect, including one of my clients, who tells me later that she would love to work in a library.

Following the presentation, I interview clients, have them sign the necessary papers and give them instructions on job search.

When it comes time to sign the agreement of personal responsibility, one of the women asks what will happen if she chooses not to sign.

"Your case closes immediately," I tell her.

"For real?" she asks.

"For real."

She signs.

A motivational trainer, contracted to provide job training, is conducting a mock interview with a woman who will be trying to enter the work force for the first time in years. The instructor is playing the part of the employer. She asks the applicant questions about her work experience, her desire to work for this company, why she thinks this company should hire her and how much she expects to earn. When the applicant in the "hot seat" falters, the instructor turns to a group of other welfare recipients watching from the sidelines. They follow through with the "right answers."

When the interview is finished, the instructor and the "applicant" shake hands, and the instructor moves onto her job search pep talk, ending with an almost religious repetition of: Do not be denied. If an employer takes your application and says he'll call but doesn't, call him. Do not be denied. If you send a resume but get no response, call the company. Do not be denied. "Do not accept no for an answer," the instructor tells the audience, which is looking on in wonderment.

After the sermon, the instructor collects information from each woman on what jobs she has applied for in the past week. One woman's form shows she has sought employment at only three places. Rules require that clients apply for 10 jobs per week, and turn in their job search log weekly.

The instructor fixes the woman with a stare that could pin a fly to the wall. "You applied for only three jobs?"

The woman begins to explain but the instructor cuts her off.

"How bad do you want to get off welfare?"

"I want to get off but . . . ."

"How bad do you want to get off welfare?"

"I want to get off . . . ."

"How bad do you want to get off welfare?"

The woman promises to do the required 10 applications next week, plus the seven she missed this week.

I am awestruck. I have never seen such an in-your-face, confrontational approach work so well. I later learned that, after a few failed attempts, the woman found a part-time job in a bagel shop.

"I'm just trying to make sense of this. I'm just trying to make sense of this."

That's my co-worker in the next cubicle discussing a point of policy with our supervisor. I am trying not to hear this conversation, so I turn up the volume on my desktop radio and continue entering client information into the computer. Over the past two years I have learned (much like Captain Yossarian in "Catch-22," Joseph Heller's novel about the absurdity of institutions and rules) that the more you try to make sense of policy, to understand it in the context of daily life, the more confusing it becomes. Policy, I believe, is like an idiom: it is not literally translatable. It is also not flexible, like trying to wrap a board around a pole. I have learned to simply apply the rules without thought to whether they make sense. When circumstances dictate, I fudge.

In the policy discussion that I drowned out, the issue was part-time employment. Virginia's welfare rules require that persons receiving public assistance find a part-time job if they wish to enroll in a training or education program, including English as a Second Language classes. At base, this rule seems reasonable; it sends the message that persons on welfare can better themselves through education and training, but they must also contribute to their family's income.

In some cases, however, this rule defies comprehension. I watch two Somali women – one of whom speaks just a shred of English and the other no English at all – sit in a Job Readiness workshop preparing to find employment that will allow them to attend English language classes. In other words, they're sitting in a class, taught in English, that is supposed to help them find jobs, so long as they don't have to speak English to do the work, in order for them to take English classes.

"Ms. Schrader," the voice on the phone shrieks. "I just got your letter telling me you're cutting off my check because I missed the Job Readiness class."

It takes me a minute, but I finally recognize the voice. (Rarely do my clients introduce themselves on the phone; they just start talking, assuming I know exactly who it is.) The woman shouting at me had missed more than the Job Readiness class. She also had missed a required orientation program on how the welfare system has changed, rescheduled for another and came an hour late to that meeting. She actually had made one day of the week-long Job Readiness session, but had missed the rest because she said she and her baby were sick. So I rescheduled her for the next round of classes, of which she missed the first two days. In terms of personal responsibility, hers is wanting.

"I couldn't go to that class because my cousin was murdered and the police were here, and my family had to make funeral arrangements."

"You couldn't call me or the Job Readiness instructor to let us know that you would be absent?" I ask. Murder doesn't get you off the hook in this program.

"I don't have a phone. And the people in this building, none of them would let me use their phone."

After the woman calmed down and apologized for shrieking at me, I was able to explain that the letter she had received was a warning, letting her know that she was in jeopardy of having her check suspended for one month if she did not contact me within a week. I told her that she had complied by contacting me, but I would need documentation of her emergency to excuse her from missing her scheduled activity. What I did not tell her was that I am not the person who stops checks – that's another poorly paid bureaucrat – and that I had read about the murder in the newspaper, so I knew the story was true.

Not all of my phone calls are from near-hysterical clients fearing financial ruin. Some are from women who have found a job. I received one such call on a recent Thursday. A woman whom I had sent to apply for a job opening at a deli was calling to let me know she had been hired for the position and would start the following Monday. I was thrilled until she told me her hours: 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. How, I wondered, was she going to get her 13-month-old daughter to a day care provider and still arrive on time at her job in the District using public transportation. This job, I knew, was doomed from the start, so I began searching our job listings to find a back-up.

As I feared, the job didn't last a week. Although the woman tried valiantly, the day care provider who had offered to meet the woman at the Metro stop and take her child (a service most day care workers won't provide) showed up late or failed to show up at all some days, causing the woman to miss work. By the following Thursday, she needed the second job referral that I was lucky enough to have found.

This story did have a happy ending, at least for now: The woman got the second job, at a gourmet food shop, which is actually better than the first job because it's in Alexandria and pays more than the first job. This was more than a month ago, and so far so good.

There are several aspects of this woman's case that are worth noting. First, the fact that she was hired at both jobs to which I referred her is highly unusual. More often than not my clients do not get the jobs that I encourage them to apply for.

Second, this woman broke the cardinal rule of job searching – never take your children with you – and still she was hired. She told me later that she had to take her daughter because there was no one to watch her, and the child, who was having a bad day, howled through the entire job interview.

Third, had this woman managed to keep the first job, which paid $6 per hour, she would have become ineligible for AFDC, so her case would have closed. She would have been considered to be self-sufficient.

In all of our welfare reform literature and presentations, in our Job Readiness Program and Job Search Support Groups, we caseworkers talk about self-sufficiency. In fact, we use the term so much, I'm afraid it has lost all meaning. What exactly does the government mean by self-sufficient? Does it mean just no government assistance or does it mean the ability to truly provide for one's family?

Let's take this woman's case again. Assume that she was able to keep that job in the deli, and that she receives no government subsidies or benefits. Now let's crunch a few numbers. If she's working 40 hours a week at $6, she's earning $240 a week before taxes. Let's call it $195 after taxes. That's a monthly income of $780. Deduct $500 for rent, $500 for day care ($25 per day), about $125 for Metro fare, and whoops! we're already in negative numbers.

Our deli worker could get a part-time job to augment her primary paycheck, but then she would have additional child care costs and she would never see her daughter.

As it happens, this woman is working in retail at about the same hourly wage as the deli paid, and is being considered for subsidized housing. She is eligible for day care assistance, and by working closer to home, she has lower transportation costs. So long as she succeeds in getting subsidized housing and day care, then at $780 a month, she's better off working than bringing in a welfare check of $294.

Ninety days have elapsed for four of my clients who began their job search in April. One woman has found a full-time job at the J.C. Penney's store that recently opened in Landmark Mall. She is earning $6.25 an hour. Two other women have made the required 10 applications a week but have not been hired. Both are around the age of 40 without a high school diploma or any job skills to speak of. One is a native of South America who would love to work in retail, but her English is just not good enough. The other, who has held only scattered jobs, would like to work in a library or store or home for the elderly.

The third woman who failed to find full-time employment just missed getting her Graduate Equivalency Diploma several years ago and was seriously injured in an automobile accident last year, an injury which has hampered her job search. She would like to be a paralegal.

As required by policy, I referred all three women to the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau, which matches clients to volunteer jobs in the nonprofit sector or in public works projects. Here's how they fared: The woman from South America is working at a local charity thrift store, the aspiring paralegal is working for the Legal Aid Office; and the would-be librarian is shelving books as a volunteer for the Northern Virginia Community College library by day, and from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. she cleans offices for a paycheck. All are delighted with their assignments.

Of the 87 clients on my caseload, 20 have found jobs that pay enough or offer enough hours for them to leave welfare. Almost all these women have skills in the health care or clerical fields, and most decided on their own to get training and get off welfare. Of the other 67, 10 are in training programs, and the others – with the exception of the three in community service and seven inactive because of medical or family crises – are looking for a primary job or searching for a second to supplement part-time work.

In my conversations with other welfare caseworkers, I have never heard anyone complain about the two-year limit. I think we all believe that deadlines are good for everyone. I have heard no complaints about the community service program. I, for one, am a strong supporter of this component. For women like the three I just mentioned, working as volunteers can prove a nurturing and beneficial experience that can serve as an entry into the world of paid work.

The part of welfare reform that concerns me and my colleagues is of clients' ability to keep jobs and become self-sufficient. We have seen women lose jobs because they did not arrive on time or because their children got sick or because they got into a dispute with a supervisor. We have seen employers reduce hours so that a full-time job suddenly became a part-time job. (This is especially true in retail and food service.) We have seen women opt to care for friends or relatives' children for 30 to 40 hours a week for a meager $50 or $75. Because they are working full-time, they are not required to look for a job and they will continue to get some portion of their AFDC check. But what happens in two years when the government check stops?

The part of welfare reform that makes me bristle is the assertion, such as Offner's, that caseworkers are in some way accountable for their clients', and the program's, success or failure. When I need an antidote to this kind of thinking, I consult a page from my Stephen Covey "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" Desk Calendar. My favorite passage is the one that quotes author Marilyn Ferguson: "No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or by emotional appeal." (This is not a new thought. Seventeenth century physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal concluded that "people are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.")

Which means we caseworkers can encourage, threaten, cajole and penalize. But until our clients are physically, intellectually and emotionally ready to take on the burden of supporting their families, or until they get the kind of intensive support, training and counseling to prepare them for this difficult duty, the goal of real self-sufficiency will not be attained.

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

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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