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A Job Program Tries to Tackle The Intangibles

By Judith Havemann and Barbara Vobejda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 16 1997; Page A01

David M. Sykes thunders down the rickety stairs of an aging wooden building and reels off the iron rules of his job training class: Arrive on the dot. Spit out the gum. Lose the hooker heels. Show up even when you're sick. Shelve the self-pity. Never blame racism. Participate or get out.

Twenty-nine unemployed men and women glance warily at each other. Sykes is talking fast, dishing out the reality of the workplace his students hope to enter.

"I've got a pit bull, a Rottweiler, and I will pay you good money to clean up after him. What's your answer?" Sykes asks.

The class erupts in mumbled protests. Chairs scrape on the basement floor as the students shrink closer to the walls.

" 'Ain't no job beneath me,' " he answers for them. "There is no such thing as a bad job." Any job is a toehold, the Strive program teaches. So take it.

As a new federal law ejects millions of welfare recipients into the world of work, Sykes and job programs like Strive are at the controversial center of a broiling issue: whether it's really a lack of job skills and opportunity that keeps many welfare recipients from finding work, or something more intangible – something like attitude.

Academics debating welfare policy have long trod carefully around the subject, arguing over whether a "culture of poverty" makes recipients feel entitled to benefits and unwilling to look for work. Now, with states struggling to put more welfare recipients to work, the debate over attitude has been resurrected and redefined.

The reason is becoming clear: Under the law signed by President Clinton in August, states bear the greatest financial burden of welfare. Those that don't move half of their caseload into jobs within five years will be docked millions of dollars.

The most critical part of that process is just beginning to unfold. Although caseloads around the country have fallen 20 percent over the past four years, many social scientists agree that those who have already left the rolls were generally the easy ones – those with the most skills, the most job experience, the most positive outlook toward work.

They were the cream. Another third of welfare recipients have traditionally cycled on and off the rolls, acquiring and losing jobs with the ebb and flow of the business cycle and their personal circumstances.

But the most difficult population, the remaining third, has proven almost impervious to a quarter-century of government reform efforts. These women typically have been on welfare for more than five years, dropped out of high school, had their first children as unmarried teenagers and live in destitute neighborhoods.

Pushing these mothers into jobs, say state welfare officials, caseworkers and policy analysts, will mean confronting not just their ability to get a job, but their ability to want one. Even many who characterize themselves as liberals are likely to argue today that long-term welfare recipients often need more than just the opportunity to work; they may need to overcome a complex psychology of resistance and fear.

In Massachusetts, where The Washington Post is chronicling the impact of welfare changes, caseloads have dropped for 43 straight months. But many of those remaining on the rolls, according to the social workers trying to find them jobs, simply don't accept that the welfare laws have been rewritten.

"I've told them for a long time, 'This is coming, this is coming,' " said Eileen Sullivan, a caseworker in the aging neighborhoods around Roslindale, a section of Boston. "Now it's here, and they say, 'I don't have the language, I don't have the education.' . . . I think they're in denial."

Early last year, a state law began requiring welfare recipients to work or perform community service. It also limited benefits to no more than two years at a time. But state officials have discovered that many recipients refuse training and avoid work even if their benefits are scheduled to run out in only a few months.

Of the roughly 77,000 adults in Massachusetts on welfare, just over half are faced with losing their welfare check in two years or less. And while many of these people are not yet required to work, caseworkers argue that they should be doing something to prepare themselves for a life without public assistance. But among the group under the time limit, less than a third are in paid jobs. Another 11 percent are volunteering.

"There are many who just don't think the two-year time limit is going to happen," said Dick Powers, a spokesman for the state Department of Transitional Assistance. "They're in denial about a lot of things."

Wanda Alvarado, 31, a single mother on welfare, is well aware that the rules have changed. But she is determined not to go to work, regardless of what the state tells her she must do to keep her benefits. She is not lazy, she insists, and in fact spends at least 20 hours a week volunteering at the tenants' association in her huge housing development in Worcester.

But living near crack dealers, with gunshots ringing frequently through the night outside her unit, she says she has no intention of leaving her children – age 11 and 13 – at home while she works. And she wouldn't have to, she argues, if the state would track down the father of her children to collect child support.

"It's not feasible for me to work and raise my kids," said Alvarado. "I am not going to go get a job because I have to go and get a job. I'm not going to do that."

Alvarado knows she could be cut off welfare completely by the end of next year, but says flatly: "I'm not worrying about it. With any luck, by the end of two years, there'll be new legislation anyway."

If she loses her benefits, she said, "somehow I'll make ends meet. . . . But I'm not willing to work at McDonald's for $4.55 an hour to come home with the same amount of money I came home with on welfare."

Alvarado's next-door neighbor, Veronica Murrell, finds it hard to give up public assistance for a different reason.

"I know it isn't right, but you get attached to it," said Murrell, a single mother of three children. "It tends to be a security blanket for a lot of people because if things don't work out, you can fall back on it."

Murrell had a job as a cashier at a nearby medical center but lost it after a few months when she had a disagreement with her boss.

Teaching How to Act

A cold wind was whipping fast-food napkins against the chain link fence surrounding the Boston headquarters of Strive last March as a new class of job training students dribbled into the building. Among them was an unemployed janitor, three or four men in jackets and ties, a crowd of single mothers, a homesick Jamaican immigrant and a veteran of job training courses who's adding another entry to her resume.

Most had come because the word on the street is that Strive works. Hundreds of other programs focus on teaching the unemployed to answer phones or operate a computer or hunt for work. What Strive teaches is how to act. Skills can come later.

So far, more than 300 clients have graduated, 225 have found jobs and about 170 of them are still working after two years, according to Strive's statistics. The program offers help not just in finding jobs, but also in keeping them.

And unlike scores of other job training programs, Strive accepts no government money, receiving funding instead from private foundations. As a result, it can be choosy about the standards it sets, and ruthless in their application.

"We're not here to collect any government wages off you," Sykes announces right off. But he tells the students they better do their part. "You're sitting here not interacting," he says scornfully. "If this were a job interview, it would be over."

One woman in the class says she's ready to hear the message Sykes has to deliver. She's there, she says, because she wants to change. "I want to stop the self-pity," she said. "I gotta get beyond the 'poor me' factor."

In part, Strive is able to reach its clients because many of its instructors were once students themselves. Sykes, 27, graduated from Strive just two years ago after spending six years in jail and then getting fired from a job for telling off his employer. Now he dominates the room like a drill sergeant, attacking attitudes that can poison employers against even the most skilled applicants.

Chief among them is a sense of entitlement.

"These chairs have old gum on the bottom of them but you ain't got no God-given right to sit on them," he says.

He derides his students for looking down on the immigrant shopkeepers in their neighborhoods. "You call them names," he says. "But they have jobs and you don't. The reason is that you come from a place where you think somebody owes you something. They know that nobody owes them nothing. They have to work for it."

Oteria Dowell, 33, has positioned herself in the most prominent chair at the intersection of the front row and the exit. "He's got to talk like this?" she asks later. "I did get the urge to say I'm not going back."

Right off, Dowell, a single mother of three, establishes herself as one of the leaders in the class just by speaking up as others sit passively. Soon she will be clashing with Sykes. A few days later, others will be talking back too, challenging Sykes's strictness, his no-excuses policy, his homework, his picayune requirements to call in at precise intervals, to make eye contact and to stay engaged in class even when it is dull.

Sykes pinpoints attitude problems like Dowell's early on. Sykes says clients like Dowell operate "on the premise that 'no one can tell me anything, I got kids.' " An attitude of authority is not all that unusual among single mothers who are raising children on a shoestring. But it can be a disaster on the job.

Just as destructive as a know-it-all attitude is a hair-trigger racial sensitivity. "Somebody says, 'You people,' " says Sykes, who like most of his students is African American. "You say, 'I'm quitting.' He is still racist. You're jobless. Who wins?"

"Racist people are everywhere," he tells his students, "but don't walk around looking for it. Learn how to handle it, learn how to bring it up with the person. You walk into an interview, the guy is white, you assume he is racist and you won't get the job. Give yourself a chance!"

Talk is only part of Strive, where violations of the rules meet with swift retribution. A meek young woman in the front of the room shows up after the lunch break two minutes late. She blames it on the long line to the bathroom. She takes a relaxed attitude toward homework assignments such as preparing a five-minute talk about herself. And when she's late again, she says it's because she's a slow eater.

The second offense means she's out of the program.

Employers might not be so lenient, Sykes says. The job market in Massachusetts, which looks great statistically, appears forbidding from the unemployment line in Dorchester.

Then Sykes turns to clothes, advising his students to dress conservatively: "You look good, you feel good. No jeans up in your butt, no hooker shoes."

So what, he says, if you look like you're coming from court. "That's a stereotype. But stereotypes are out there. You may be harmless, but you have a hard time looking like you're harmless. That's why we have a dress code."

Dowell, who started out cocky, finishes the program and gives it high marks for forcing her to do what she knew she needed to do all along. "They really do push you, but I think they need to be tough. And afterward, they do stick with you, through thick and thin."

She's now working at a large day-care center in her neighborhood. She got the job through Strive: One of the staff members heard about an opening and passed the information along. Dowell applied at several places, and then did something she hadn't tried before – she followed up. A week later she was working full time.

Other students met the letter of the class but apparently never absorbed the message.

Near the end of the three weeks, Sykes is in the hall at lunch break when he overhears a student complaining vulgarly to the class about the program, "how he doesn't want to be here, and how I can kiss his butt."

For Sykes, that was over the line, exactly the kind of attitude an employer wouldn't tolerate.

"I had thought he was developing. He had changed his appearance and seemed to be learning," Sykes said. "He said he was just expressing his personal opinion, exercising his freedom of speech. That was too personal. I told him to leave."

Four weeks later, the student was back, exercising his prerogative to try again. This time he graduated and is interviewing at Amtrak and another company.

Changing PerceptionsFor decades, many conservatives have argued that a lack of self-discipline and motivation, what they sometimes termed a "culture of poverty," has kept many poor Americans from improving their lives.

Other, more liberal-minded sociologists have fiercely rejected the notion, saying discrimination and insufficient opportunity, not weak character, were at the heart of the problem. They saw the cultural argument as a dangerous excuse for not offering job opportunities. And they saw it as racist, aimed at the predominantly African American families in the inner-city communities most plagued by poverty.

But state officials, now rushing to put more welfare recipients to work, are finding little comfort in the traditional arguments of the left and the right. Caseworkers must confront a constellation of psychological and cultural issues that keep people out of the work force, including resistance and denial, depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

And if the barrier to a job is one of mind-set, states must overcome it, whether it stems from the ills of society or the weakness of the individual.

In the process of seeking solutions, the two sides have found some common ground: Many conservatives have begun to agree that, while some welfare recipients need an attitude adjustment, others simply need more practical assistance – child care and transportation subsidies, for example – in order to get and keep a job.

Among many who would consider themselves liberals, there is a new willingness to agree that welfare dependence does have a cultural dimension, given its link to teenage births and single parenthood.

When the "culture of poverty" theory became popular in the early 1970s, "it made me very, very angry," said Donna Franklin, author of "Ensuring Inequality: The Structural Transformation of the African American Family." "We thought it was horrible, that it stigmatized the poor."

Now, she said, "most liberals will concede there is a culture of poverty. There is no socialization around work."

Douglas Besharov, a welfare scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said he rejected the culture of poverty argument in the 1960s and still believes poverty then was related mostly to high unemployment and discrimination. But, he said, the debate has moved to the right, with liberals more likely to agree that welfare rules should be tightened to discourage those who don't need help from coming on the rolls.

And while many on the left continue to reject the old culture argument, he said, "even liberals would say we have cultural and economic forces that are driving young people to irresponsible and ultimately self-destructive behavior."

Judging the Results

Hold Strive's approach up to a certain light and it looks strikingly harsh: Work like a dog. Accept the wages offered. Don't complain about racism. Bow to authority.

Sykes says that is the wrong way to view it. "My clients are jobless, close to homeless. I am trying to shock them into getting a foot on the ladder, to get enough experience to ask for better wages, to stand up against racism."

But does it really work? Gary C. Walker, president of Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia, a well-known group in the field of job training, cautions that Strive and many other programs have not been subjected to careful studies to determine whether successful graduates would have found jobs anyway.

"There is no way of knowing whether everyone needs that sort of treatment," said Walker, who has visited Strive.

The March session underscores the challenge.

Of the more than 50 clients who registered for the session, only 29 showed up the first day. Fifteen graduated. Three have already disappeared into "inactive" status, which means Strive can't contact them or they are not looking for work, often because they are back in jail or pregnant. Nine of the students have jobs and the remaining three are still looking.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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