Two teams of welfare recipients work side by side in Central Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. Orange-vested Work Experience Program workers pick up trash, and sweatsuited Parks Department trainees paint park benches. Everyone gets the same welfare check for the labor, but the difference is that the team in sweats has volunteered to work an extra 15 hours a week as part of the Parks Career Training Program.
PACT started in 1994 as one of the few training alternatives to WEP, and now accounts for about 1,000 of the city’s 35,000 workfare assignments. Participants get training in security, horticulture or secretarial work, plus a chance to work toward a GED or commercial driver’s license.
The program must find jobs for at least 300 participants a year, and for each placement, the Parks Department gets $8,000. “We don’t promise anyone that they will get a job, but we’ll try,” says Andy Brogan, the program’s Manhattan borough coordinator. “In the last six to nine months, ninety Manhattan workers got jobs. That’s more than thirty percent of the participants in our borough.”
Job counselors point out proudly that they know each participant by name. “The job coordinators pester you, bother you, call you, hound you to get a job. That makes all the difference,” says Ray Robinson, a trainee who has been in the program for almost a year. “In WEP, you sink, you swim. They don’t care.”
William Hanks agrees that the PACT staff seems more sincerely concerned about the participants. But, he adds, workfare is still workfare. “[It] isn’t a great learning experience, but I always wanted a driver’s license, and after three months in PACT, I got my permit,” Hanks says. “But sometimes I do feel taken advantage of–if a private paint company did the job we did, they would have done it in twice the time and charged a lot more.”
That’s why welfare activists accuse the program of promising more than it can deliver. “PACT is a glorified WEP assignment,” says ACORN’s Milly Silva. “It’s not been proven as a hard-working way out of WEP or off welfare.”