As the leaves changed color in the fall of 1996, Evelyn Davila sat in a city welfare office and feared opportunity was slipping away. She had enrolled in a seven-month health care training class at SUNY's Bronx Educational Opportunity Center and was slated to begin classes in two days. But the city's policy was clear–if she wanted to keep receiving her welfare check, she had to sign up for a Work Experience Program assignment, i.e., workfare. And that meant dropping the full-time training program.
One and a half years later, Davila is the model of the modern mother who has moved from welfare to work. She has a decent job, earning $11.95 an hour taking blood samples at Mercy Hospital in the Bronx. For politicians–including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani–who persistently spout mantras of personal responsibility and economic independence, Davila ought to be a star.
She's not. In fact, she got where she is today in spite of–rather than because of–the city's strict WEP requirements. And she did it with the help of the very people Mayor Giuliani and his allies excoriate as enemies of effective governance: a state Supreme Court judge and welfare rights attorneys from the Legal Aid Society and the Welfare Law Center.
More than a year ago, the lawyers took the city to court over Davila's case. They charged that state law requires caseworkers to assess welfare parents' skills, educational needs–even their personal goals–before they are placed in workfare. Such an assessment, they argue, only makes sense if officials act on the results, making allowances for education and training if that's what will best prepare the parent for a lifetime of employment.
“The city has made a mockery of this. They fill out forms, and people get put in workfare regardless,” charges Richard Blum, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society.
Judge Jane Solomon agreed with this analy-sis, and forced the city to allow Davila and the other 11 named plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit to delay their workfare assignment until they had completed their training programs. Davila took the health care training course, graduated and got a job. The class action suit bearing her name is still pending.
“When the city is forced to do what's required under the law, it works,” says Chris Lamb, senior attorney at the Welfare Law Center.
Davila, Blum and their allies are like plodding pedestrians, heads bowed against the crowd of tens of thousands of welfare recipients being guided by the Giuliani administration away from vocational training and education and into dead-end workfare assignments, cleaning streets and filing papers in exchange for their welfare check. Two years ago, nearly 60,000 women on the rolls of the old family welfare program, AFDC, were in some type of job training. Today, according to the Mayor's Management Report, only a few thousand are allowed to count vocational training toward their workfare requirements, and the number of welfare recipients enrolled in CUNY courses has dropped by nearly half.
Yet research study upon research study indicates that more often than not, undergraduate education and skills training courses lead to long-term, reasonably well-paid employment. For example, a 1996 study by Marilyn Gittell, director of CUNY's Center noted that 87 percent of women on welfare in New York State who went to college had been employed since graduation
Across the country, policy makers are trying to find the right place for education in the welfare equation. A few
states have decided that, for some people on public assistance schooling and vocational training should take precedence over make-work jobs. But in New York, where government officials often say their welfare reform policies are simply following the tough rules set down by Congress, the city and state could in fact be promoting a lot more education and training while still falling within federal guidelines. As Evelyn Davila discovered, not only is New York unwilling to help welfare recipients find training, it often blocks the way.
While the mayor's contempt for CUNY is front-page news, workfare's impact on the public university system is less well known: The number of welfare recipients enrolled at CUNY dropped by more than 12,600 from the spring of 1995 to the fall of 1997, according to senior CUNY officials–from 26,969 to 14,318.
And training programs in New York for everything from nurses' aides to truck drivers have lost participants, as well. The causes include a big change in city contracting priorities away from training and toward immediate job placement, and the direct impact of strict workfare requirements–which can make it difficult, if not impossible, for many welfare parents to attend classes.
In contrast to the supposedly reformist spirit of these changes, the network of creative training programs that have moved thousands of welfare recipients into jobs is struggling to cope with old-time bureaucratic headaches.
“The pool of participants is smaller and smaller,” says Martha Baker, executive director of Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), which prepares women on welfare for jobs in the building trades and the transportation, cable television and other industries, while giving them the support services they need to make the transition to permanent employment. “The money to train is less. In order to train the people I think I should be training, I have to go elsewhere for funding and elsewhere for the population.”
She says that on a case-by-case basis, it's often possible to convince an HRA caseworker to grant a workfare exemption for an individual welfare recipient to enroll in a training program–or at least to convince him or her to adjust a workfare assignment hours to allow for training. But in other cases, women have had to delay starting Baker's program for six months and do WEP instead.
“In any large bureaucracy, there's a random chance to find people of conscience who'll work things out,” Blum says. “But that's absolutely not the city's policy.”
Many training program directors haven't yet figured out how this informal system works. One high-ranking nonprofit executive who is familiar with dozens of training programs explains: “Some programs don't have the time or staff to deal with the case-by-case process. Some don't understand the process yet. There are no clear rules. A lot of programs just weren't aware they could save people.”
The changes have even caused a few agencies to nearly grind to a halt. “As of this moment, we are unable to enroll anyone,” says Cheryl Graham, New York operations coordinator for the Center for Employment Training, which prepares participants for specific occupations, such as medical assis-tant and office computer specialist, and includes basic math and reading skills in its course work. “Most of our students are on public assistance. They've been devastated. They had been looking forward to getting career training, but instead of coming into our program, they have to go to the Work Experience Program. It's affected every program we do here.” Last September, HRA didn't renew CET's contract to provide training to about 200 welfare recipients a year. “We were taken by surprise–we were expecting renewal,” says Andy Forbes, interim division director for CET's New York program.
The city refuses to comment on the defunding. HRA spokesperson Renelda Higgins says her office has adopted a policy of “not responding to City Limits” because or past coverage. But Forbes suspects part of the issue is time. The city wants people off the rolls immediately; training at CET can take as long as six months. “They want people off the rolls quickly, and job training doesn't fit that,” he says.
Fending off a workfare assignment to pursue training is often a tough proposition, as illustrated by a set of HRA procedures outlined in an internal November 1997 HRA memo obtained by City Limits: Clients who have enrolled in a training program–but have not yet started–are required to join WEP. Clients who have had past vocational training are required to do WEP. Clients who are in college but haven't yet obtained half the credits they need for graduation must usually join WEP.
Last May, HRA started calling in college students to start workfare regardless of whether or not they had enrolled in summer classes. But a judge's restraining order in a lawsuit–like the Davila case–based on the State Social Services law, stopped the practice. The law has since been revised, allowing the city to force students into workfare. Still, HRA has become slightly more flexible, allowing students to replace workfare hours with an internship or work-study in their first year of school–and concentrate on studies without any limitations in their final year.
Meanwhile, the system is slowly evolving to accommodate a new hybrid of WEP and training programs. The city is establishing pilot programs that pay for training sessions and support services for clients between their WEP work hours. Other organizations have simply agreed to oversee workfare placements within their own place of business.
Last month, HRA designated the Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDCO), a Bronx training and housing nonprofit, as an enhanced WEP site, allowing welfare recipients to fulfill their workfare assignment at the agency while learning skills by working in fields such as child care or the restaurant industry. But WHEDCO has had to alter its program to create more job-like tasks before and after training sessions, because time spent exclusively in training does not qualify as work. And the organization is receiving no money from the city to administer its 50 new WEP slots.
Nevertheless, these changes are taking hold, and advocates are relieved that the situation is not worse. “Do I think it's ideal? No,” says Nancy Biberman, WHEDCO's president. “Do I think it's better than nothing? Yes, it's a compromise.”
Compromise hasn't played a large role in Mayor Giuliani's welfare policy. He once criticized the federal welfare laws passed by Congress in 1996 as too stringent. However, his interpretation of those Washington reforms is far more stiff than it needs to be–and the city might be better off if City Hall was willing to be less dogmatic and more flexible.
True, Congress did take a hard line, setting out specific no-nonsense federal work requirements for states that wanted to get their full block grant for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the new family welfare program.
A certain percentage of TANF recipients each year must be involved in “work-related activities,” which include work experience, job search, community services, vocational education and on-the-job training. After two years on welfare, each individual has to be in a work-related, activity. However, no more than 30 percent of those in work-related activities can be participating in vocational education. And training programs can be counted as work for only one year for each client.
But in fact, beneath the rigid facade, a great deal of flexibility is written into the law. Each state has leeway in designing its own guidelines–and that applies to the definition of work. Education, training, and even volunteer community service can all fit. “For vocational educational training, we're leaving it to the state to define what that consists of,” says Michael Kharfen, spokesperson For the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “There's a lot of opportunities for how a state's program can be run.”
The federal restrictions leave acres of room for more education and more innovation in New York. According to the most recent state Department of Labor report to the Federal government, New York could double the number of public assistance recipients in vocational raining and still be within the law. 'At the present it's an irrelevant restriction,” Chris Lamb says.
Furthermore, because of the state's three-year purge of the welfare rolls, federal regulations require New York to have only 13 percent of the heads of TANF single-parent households in work-related activities this year–and right now initial data reveals a statewide participation rate more than twice that, according to Roger Gerby, the chief of research and evaluation for the state's Department of Labor.
When it comes to New York, however, “focusing on the [federal guidelines] is probably missing the point,” says Joe Capobianco, chief of the labor department's Bureau of Program Development. “For the last several years, the city has seen work experience as the way out of welfare, so they're not interested in vocational education as a stepping stone. It's contrary to their phi-losophy.”
City Hall's philosophy is likely to change, thanks to the recent arrival of new HRA commissioner Jason Turner.
But no one is entirely sure where he will take it. Turner's previous employer, the state of Wisconsin, is well known for very strict work requirements, and critics there charge this severity–coupled with a strong economy–has been the primary catalyst for the dramatic reduction in the state's welfare rolls over the last few years.
Yet some advocates admire the structure Wisconsin has built into its pilot welfare program, Wisconsin Works (W-2), which went statewide last September. Recipients are placed in one of four tiers, starting with a transitional program–which includes GED studies–for people who aren't prepared for the workforce. The second tier places men and women in community service positions. Next comes subsidized employment and, finally, unsubsidized employment.
On paper, this strategy allows a caseworker more flexibility than in New York for helping a recipient get targeted, relevant assistance before being pushed off welfare. Wisconsin has also hiked funding for child care, transportation and emergency grants to support people in finding and keeping jobs. Governor Tommy Thompson increased spending for W-2 by $178 million last year, despite the fact that the state's welfare roll has declined from 98,295 families in January 1987 to 31,476 last September.
The system's flaw, according to critics, is that it has stripped the rolls without worrying about the consequences. A recent study by the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee followed all W-2 clients in Milwaukee County from January 1996 to March 1997. The study found that most welfare recipients could find jobs–but usually for only short periods of time and for below-poverty-line wages. Seventy-five percent of the single parents that joined the labor force in early 1996 were no longer employed by the beginning of 1997.
The problem, says Anne Stratham of Wisconsin's Women and Poverty Public Education Initiative, is that the state has ignored the four-tier structure and moved as many people as possible into unsubsidized employment. Once a recipient is in these two categories, obtaining education or vocational training to do better becomes far more difficult. “You have to work 30 to 40 hours a week and go to classes in the evenings. You're not given child care [for time in school]. It's pretty much impossible to do,” Stratham says. “After a lot of lobbying, the legislature wrote in some provisions for education, but the governor line-item vetoed those out.”
“If Jason Turner is coming to New York, you're in for quite a ride,” she says.