Workfare: welfare aid or impediment?

"Workfare" -- requiring those who are able to work for their welfare checks -- is spreading: * In the last few years government agencies in 21 states have begun experimental programs in which recipients of local and state welfare checks are asked to do some work in return.

* Although Washington has been less eager to apply the same work standard to those qualifying for federal assistance, it has taken some gingerly steps toward workfare and will be urged to take more in the near future.

A current US Department of Agriculture pilot program requires employable food-stamp recipients in five counties and two cities across the country to take jobs in exchange for the federal help they get. Results so far are considered so successful (while 20 percent are on workfare, the majority dropped out of the food-stamp program altogether or got jobs on their own) that the program is being extended an extra year and expanded to 14 counties. Some in Congress want to extend workfare to include those receiving public housing help and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

But there is lively debate over the merits of workfare. Few quarrel with the basic theory that those able to work in return for benefits received should do so. The dispute centers more on such matters as forcing people into workfare programs and how much job training or other help is provided.

Critics are concerned lest mothers with small children and others who should not work (at least not without additional services) may be inadvertently swept into the program or forgo needed assistance rather than go through the trouble of obtaining exemption.

They argue further that it is unfair to ask welfare recipients to work at the same jobs as paid employees for benefits rather than salaries. The effect, they say, is to subsidize the employer through the backdoor and displace others who might need the salaried jobs.

Too often, critics say, workfare candidates get no skills training at all and are assigned to entry-level jobs with little future such as raking leaves and polishing doorknobs.

Thus, the critics argue, workfare could simply be another dead end for the indigent rather than a path toward getting off the welfare rolls and into salaried jobs.

"The experience we've had and seen with workfare is that it can become an impediment to getting people out of the welfare system," says Ira Goldstein, director of policy in the federal Office of Family Assistance in Washington. "Some on workfare begin to see it as a regular job in return for the grants they get."

Another view is that many welfare recipients have as much need for education in literature, history, and politics as for skills training. "The evidence is that a person can be technically trained but not be able to retain a position for social reasons," says University of Pennsylvania sociologist Samuel Klausner. He urges that a "liberal arts" education at the secondary-school level be provided such people.

Advocates of workfare, who tend to be politically more conservative than the critics, say advantages of the idea go both to the welfare recipient, who gains valuable job experience, and to the taxpayer, who is apt to get more for his welfare dollar.

In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, where the job of finding public service and regular salaried job slots for welfare recipients was turned over to a consortium of 10 social service agencies two years ago, county officials estimate a savings to taxpayers of $25 million off the local property tax.

"Probably as much money has been spent on work assistance as would have been spent on welfare," concedes Ronald San Felippo of Jewish Vocational Services, chief administrative agency for the consortium. "But it's federal and state rather than all local funds, and it's going for services and placements rather than welfare checks."

Most workfare experiments to date involve childless couples or single persons receiving local and state general assistance funds. Many are young high school dropouts not poor enough to fit in a federal welfare category.

Some of the programs aimed at helping put them in jobs are imaginative. One assistance program widely applauded is that in Kent county, Michigan, where the caseload has tripled in the last year because of growing unemployment in the state. The county has refined the help it offers over the last few years. At first everyone was assessed en masse and put in public service jobs, according to Mrs. Nancy Woodward, supervisor of the county's employment training unit. Now a screening interview carefully culls out those with alcohol, education, or mental problems for special counseling, testing, training, and the like.

"We feel that if they don't get rid of their personal problems, they won't be job ready," Mrs. Woodward explains.

Other programs, such as statewide one in New Jersey, where welfare rolls have dropped 35 percent since 1978, put a heavy emphasis on equipping welfare recipients with sound job-hunting techniques. If employable, they can be given up to three months worth of classes and group help. By that time many get jobs on their own. Others are placed in public service jobs.

Those not placed in jobs, says Janice Yunginger of the New Jersey Labor Department's employment services division, really need the state's welfare services.

But workfare programs providing extensive training and individual attention tend to be the exception rather than the rule and in that, advocates say, lies the problem.

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