CHICAGO — In a cramped apartment on Chicago's West Side, Carmen Pagin holds up construction-paper shapes for two preschool girls sitting cross-legged on the rug in front of her.
"Que color es el treangulo?" she asks in Spanish. "Yellow," shouts Miriam Torres, as the apartment windows rattle from a passing elevated train.
The tutoring scene is typical but with a new twist: Mrs. Pagin is on welfare. So are more than 85 percent of the 500 part-time tutors recently hired under a new Chicago public-school program for at-risk youngsters.
With the benefits clock now ticking for 16,000 mothers in Illinois and thousands more welfare recipients across the country, Chicago and other cities are experimenting with new ways to put this labor pool to work in the public sector. The trend is most evident in cities with tight budgets and large welfare caseloads, such as Chicago and New York.
"Since budgets are strapped and governments are not employing as many [full-time] people, the use of welfare recipients is something that seems to have broad appeal," says Robert Lerman, director of the human resources policy center at the Urban Institute in Washington.
In Chicago, welfare recipients recently began working as plumbers, carpenters, and maintenance people at the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and as benefit representatives in public-aid offices. In New York, an estimated 30,000 aid recipients are cleaning parks, streets, and buses and doing other part-time city work.
Under Chicago's Parents as Teachers First (PATF) program, tutors like Pagin will help a projected 10,000 children from low-income families learn basic skills such as identifying colors, reciting the alphabet, and tying their shoes.
Chicago needs the new tutors to alleviate long waiting lists for Head Start and other publicly funded preschool programs. The tutors earn $6 an hour for a maximum of 12 hours each week, while strengthening their resumes. Pagin, who lost her job in a purse factory in 1991, says she hopes eventually to study education and teach.
Experts predict that cities and states will face growing pressure to channel some aid recipients into the public sector, especially in areas of concentrated urban poverty where large numbers of unskilled adults are unlikely to find private-sector jobs.
"Private employers, even with a subsidy, are reluctant to hire," says Evelyn Brodkin, an associate professor at the University of Chicago. "With tight profit margins, they do not have the slack."
Yet the practice raises unique concerns, say experts, who question the quality of public work offered and whether it will help people achieve self-sufficiency. "The big concern is: will the skills they learn ever get them hired for real jobs?" asks Margaret Weir, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Absolutely, contend drafters of the welfare bill in Washington. "The key is to get them into a job - any job - flipping hamburgers, janitorial work. Then, they take over," says a senior House staffer. "What works is work."
Others, however, contend that the make-work programs that states typically offer are more likely to lead nowhere. "The new welfare law provides absolutely no check on the quality of state-work programs," says Professor Brodkin. "If someone works for three years sweeping streets ... can it lead to a permanent job? The scary thing is that under the new law, people can play by all the rules and still end up poor and jobless."
Another issue is what labor rights welfare recipients will enjoy, especially in cases where they are required to accept a state-assigned job or lose their benefits. Under workfare programs in New York, for example, welfare recipients work part-time for low or minimum wages and lack the benefits granted full-time workers.
A third problem experts raise is that welfare workers may be given public-sector jobs for which they are not qualified. In Chicago, for example, the preschool program has been criticized for giving tutors only seven weeks of part-time training before they began work.
"What this amounts to is people trying to do a very important job spending the least possible amount of money," says Burton White, director of the Center for Parent Education in Newton, Mass., and an expert in early childhood education.
Pagin admits that tutoring can be a challenge. Raised in Puerto Rico, she sometimes stumbles while reading the English teaching materials. "If I don't understand something, I ask my [high school-age] daughter and she helps me," says Pagin. Each night, Pagin translates the English lesson plan into a hand-written Spanish guide that she can more easily follow.
Still, she feels rewarded by contributing to her neighborhood school and community. "It's not much income. It's the opportunity to help someone learn that makes me feel good," Pagin says.