From Welfare To Work—Until A Budget Cut Hits

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Last year, thanks to the transitional jobs program, former welfare recipient James Graham (center) earned a city paycheck, enjoyed union protections and even paid taxes.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Last year, thanks to the transitional jobs program, former welfare recipient James Graham (center) earned a city paycheck, enjoyed union protections and even paid taxes.

For years, James Graham swept floors, stocked shelves and emptied trashcans inside city buildings in exchange for his monthly welfare check. To anyone who wasn't sure, Graham's badge explained that he was a workfare participant, not a real employee.

Then last year, a caseworker referred Graham to the city's transitional jobs program, which turns welfare recipients into temporary city employees. For the six months he was enrolled and working for the Parks Department, Graham earned a city paycheck, enjoyed union protections and even paid taxes.

“I was actually contributing something,”says Graham, 43, who lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. “I felt like a real worker.”

The city will almost certainly be forced to scale back the transitional jobs program this year due to depleted stimulus funds and state budget cuts, which eliminated all $5 million of state funding for the program.

Began despite Giuliani

The Human Resources Administration oversees the program, which it refers to as the Job Training Participant program. HRA placed welfare recipients in almost 6,000 temporary positions in the Parks and Sanitation departments during the last fiscal year, which ended in June. Participants earn a city paycheck instead of cash assistance, join the public employee union, DC 37, and spend one day a week in paid job counseling.

This year, the Parks Department will likely cut more than 700 jobs from the program. Those reductions are just one of the many cost-cutting measures the Parks Department is required to take, as are all city agencies, to help balance the city budget in the face of sharp cutbacks in state funding.

The City Council established the transitional jobs program in 2000, after overriding a veto by then-Mayor Rudolph Guiliani. Since then, HRA has referred thousands of welfare recipients to jobs in the Parks Department, as well as some in the Sanitation Department and, for a while, in HRA itself.

HRA case managers choose welfare recipients to participate in the jobs program based on certain criteria. Participants must be unemployed, on welfare for at least a year and in good standing with HRA. They can't have violent criminal convictions or be enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program.

Last year, the Parks Department hired around 300 participants for permanent positions after their stint in the transitional jobs program. Overall, about 1,200 participants – around a fifth of those in the program – moved into some full-time job directly after working for the city, according to HRA spokesperson Carmen Boon.

“This is one of the many employment focused programs,”Boon said, “that are a key component of HRA's work-first strategy.”

Budget cuts bite

Lawmakers and worker advocates alike have praised the program. City Councilwoman Annabel Palma, who chairs the committee that oversees HRA, says the paid work eases participants off the welfare rolls and into the workforce.

“The transitional jobs program is one of the common-sense city programs that work,”said Palma, who represents a district in the Bronx, in a statement released this week. “This program offers individuals on public assistance an invaluable opportunity to gain work experience and improve their own situation.”

At a budget hearing last month, Palma asked the HRA commissioner, Robert Doar, how budget cuts would impact the program. Doar said in his testimony that subsidized jobs programs “will be operating at a much reduced level.”

Doar said the end of federal stimulus funding, which provided HRA with more than $55 million over two years, contributed to the reduction. But he singled out state budget cuts when explaining why his agency will offer fewer subsidized jobs this year.

“The state budget is of great concern and will significantly affect low-income New Yorkers,”Doar said. “Once again, the state is continuing its pattern of withdrawing support for services to the poor.”

A chance at real work

Among those lamenting the loss of paid jobs for welfare recipients is Graham. Before he joined the transitional jobs program last summer, Graham spent five years living on public assistance.

Each month the city gave him $581 in food stamps, rent subsidies and money for other expenses. In return, Graham was required to devote 35 hours a week to “work activities.” Most weeks, this meant two days in basic job training classes, and three full days in the Work Experience Program, or WEP.

In WEP, also called workfare, participants perform unpaid jobs at city agencies and non-profits in exchange for their benefits. Unlike the transitional jobs program, WEP doesn't offer sick leave and rarely leads to permanent positions. Last month, about 12,000 cash assistance recipients participated in WEP.

“When it comes to WEP, it's humiliating, the whole thing,”Graham said recently. “I would work really hard, but they never offered me a job.”

Then his caseworker found him a six-month Parks Department position through the transitional jobs program. Graham worked 40 hours a week, for $9.21 an hour, painting buildings, blowing leaves and washing away graffiti.

Now what?

But since his temporary job expired in December, Graham is once again out of work and on welfare. He says he wants to earn a degree in social work, but he can't find the time now that he's back in WEP.

“I feel like it's a never-ending circle,”Graham says. “Like a dog chasing its tail.”

At the HRA hearing, City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, whose district is in Manhattan, asked Doar how his agency helps welfare recipients like Graham find jobs.

“We help them in a variety of ways,”Doar said. “But most importantly, clients often help themselves. That's the key ingredient.”

Graham doesn't disagree. But he says that too often programs like WEP, which are intended to instill a work ethic in those who receive public assistance, actually prevent participants from finding real jobs.

“They've put stumbling blocks before me,”Graham says. “There's so many other things I can do, if given the chance.”