The Big Idea: Meet the New Boss

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At a closed-door conference last December, the Citizens Budget Commission invited charity directors, nonprofit types and policy wonks to dissect the city’s economic crisis. When David Jones of the Community Service Society, a longtime antipoverty advocate and stalwart liberal, offered his solution–a public-private partnership to create jobs–it raised some eyebrows.

“David Jones, a workfare advocate?” teased the moderator, NY1’s Andrew Kirtzmann. “Who would have ever thought it?”

“Don’t tell my mother,” said Jones sheepishly.

In less than a thousand words, tucked into an emergency social policy proposal issued last November and entitled “Back to Work,” CSS is proposing a transitional employment program that’s larger than any other in the United States, and at a higher starting wage than any of them. At the heart of Jones’s proposal is an idea so old it looks new: an emergency counter-recessionary public works initiative.

In other words, it’s not WEP; it’s closer in spirit to the WPA.

Ever since welfare reform began in 1996, advocates for the poor have been fighting mandatory work requirements. Even those–and there were many–who supported welfare reform-tied jobs initiatives saw them as coerced labor, cynically designed to force desperate people into low-paying jobs and undercut city unions.

“This is a crisis for liberals,” says Ed Ott of New York’s Central Labor Council, believes liberals lost the 1996 battle against welfare reform by allowing conservatives to maneuver them into opposing work. “We created a whole underclass of women and children who couldn’t get out,” he says, “because we didn’t ask ourselves, ‘What are the long-term barriers to work?’”

But now, with mass layoffs, a recession and reauthorization of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) looming, that weary attitude has undergone a delicate but crucial shift. More and more antipoverty groups are including subsidized transitional work programs in their platforms, even spending precious political capital on ambitious public works proposals. The Philadelphia Unemployment Project is using its success in negotiating small-scale transitional jobs programs as a starting point for a larger campaign for public works. A freshman senator from Delaware, self-described centrist Tom Carper, plans to propose federally subsidized transitional jobs programs as a key element in this year’s debate over TANF reauthorization. Across the country, dozens of advocates and organizations–some of them the very same ones that spent the past eight years fighting workfare–are now fighting, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, for work.

Almost all of these proposals are adapting the new model of transitional job program made possible by welfare reform. Largely the brainchild of social policy think tanks, these programs use each state’s discretionary power over federal block grant money to subsidize paid work in the public, nonprofit and, increasingly, private sectors. The hope is that, when combined with job-related training, they will help participants’ long-term employment prospects. “These programs are a great way for people to move from public assistance to long-term jobs,” says Steve Savner of the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy.

Anne Lecee, director of Welfare Made a Difference, a national educational campaign designed to address misperceptions about public assistance, sees this shift in emphasis toward jobs as a pragmatic capitulation to the politics of welfare reform. “It’s hard, when you’ve been on the defensive so long,” she says. For many, the discussion has been “dragged toward work.”

That’s true even for hardcore workfare critics like the East Harlem-based Community Voices Heard, whose members have been increasingly vocal in demanding quality transitional jobs programs. When HRA abruptly ended the Parks Opportunity Program, which let several thousand people in the sub-minimum wage Work Experience Program convert to “real” city jobs at union-scale $9.38 an hour, 45 workers marched down to the offices of Community Voices Heard. Together, they organized a boisterous demonstration to demand to keep their jobs. Such experiences appear to be changing the ways activists think about their options. “For those who can work,” says a senior staffer at Community Voices Heard, “a job is the ultimate safety net.”

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In this country, government has responded to bottomed-out business cycles with emergency employment programs ever since 1807, when the Jefferson administration proposed employing New York City dockworkers during the British embargo. The grand-daddy of such programs, the WPA, got its start here in New York State, in the form of the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. From 1931 to 1935, relief paid out $300 million in market-rate wages to the unemployed, who were compensated for performing a wide variety of ordinary everyday jobs, from home health care visits to rebinding library books and planting fruit trees.

These days, New York has but two small transitional jobs programs: One, articulated in a citywide law passed in 1998, was never implemented. The other, a statewide public-sector pilot program, remains mired in Albany’s budgetary marsh. At this rate, it seems unlikely that a modern-day Diego Rivera will ever paint a mural of New York’s unemployed building the Second Avenue subway.

But since last September, the fight for jobs has taken on a new urgency. The city’s economic troubles give the idea of government-funded jobs an appeal it didn’t have before. The Community Service Society is hoping it can parlay that crisis into a solid initiative that can help the poor. “People are so focused on the rebuilding of downtown,” says Mark Levitan, an analyst at the society. “We’re asking people to step back and look at the big picture. This is a point of opportunity.”

The Community Service Society proposal is designed to deal with the city’s economic crisis swiftly and directly, through the neo-Keynesian approach of pumping money into jobs as economic stimulus.

The actual mechanism of the plan is surprisingly simple. A central, city-based authority–preferably the Department of Employment–would create 50,000 subsidized jobs, paying $8.50 an hour and lasting one year. Instead of being restricted to people on welfare, the jobs would be open to anyone who needs one. The goal will be to employ as many people as possible in the shortest possible time. Partly for that reason, no explicit training will be provided, a fact that sets it apart from most transitional jobs programs. “The beauty of this thing is that you can get it up and running quickly,” says Levitan.

The $750 million necessary to fund it would come from all available Federal block grant sources–mainly the state’s $800 million dollar TANF “rainy day” fund.

In order to be subsidized by the program, jobs would have to satisfy two primary needs: for workers, the need for long-term employment prospects; for the city at large, the more elusive standard of “community benefit.” The jobs will be in the public, nonprofit and private sectors.

By including the private sector, CSS hopes to pump cash into poor neighborhoods and help vital small businesses to stay afloat. Hard-hit nonprofits are an obvious source of jobs, but so are businesses in poor neighborhoods. Levitan believes that this, in the broadest sense, also constitutes public works. “If we can help the 24-hour drugstore stay open when your baby needs Tylenol,” says Levitan, “that’s a community need too.”

But the inclusion of private sector employers worries some advocates for the poor. There’s no guarantee that employers won’t pad their payrolls with subsidized workers, only to turn around and fire them when the program ends a year later. Don Friedman of the Community Food Resource Center notes “the potential for exploitation whenever public largesse flows into private hands.”

Without any provision for education or training, long-term success for those who participate in the CSS plan ultimately depends on the quality of the jobs available. A subsidized position at Duane Reade might not be the answer; even Kathryn Wylde of the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce, who believes that poverty programs must engage the marketplace, cautions that “you can’t just dump 4,000 people into retail.”

In the end, the effort may be most successful at sending a message. New York city and state are now footing the entire bill for welfare checks for families who’ve reached their five-year lifetime limits on federal welfare. There may be no better time to demonstrate that investing in jobs is the way to go.

“It’s not the ultimate legislation. I don’t think that those of us who are advocating this see it as a panacea,” says Brad Lander of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a key supporter of the plan. “We just see it as part of a better overall welfare policy.” •

Bob Roberts is a Bronx-based freelance writer.